Chamber of Commerce eyes new dawn under divided government after rankling Republicans

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent four years in the political wilderness but now sees a path forward for its business-first agenda with Joseph R. Biden in the White House.

Once an ardent ally of the GOP, the Chamber broke with President Trump on trade policy and divided its support between Republicans and Democrats in crucial House races in 2020, hurting the GOP’s chances of seizing the majority.

The leaders of the Chamber now insist that a divided government will be good for business.

Neil Bradley, chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber, said he was frustrated by Washington’s output in the Trump era and is hopeful for a new dawn in D.C.

“If anything, the needs have gotten worse in the last four years,” Mr. Bradley said. “I think everyone’s disappointed we didn’t make more progress over the past several years. Interestingly, I think the fact that we’re entering a period of very closely divided government actually might create more of an opening to get some of these things done.”

The overarching mission in 2021 for the Chamber, which is the world’s largest business federation, is economic growth and recovery. To that end, it seeks a large infrastructure package and an overhaul of immigration policy that would be part of broader legislation to provide training for workers displaced during the coronavirus pandemic.

Accomplishing the business group’s top priorities in the New Year could prove to be an uphill battle. Its 2020 election strategy rankled some conservatives and may have damaged the group’s relationship with congressional Republicans.

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said the Chamber could have helped put Republicans in control of the House of Representatives if it had forcefully entered the campaign fray.

“If they’d done that, they’d be sitting pretty in this town,” Mr. Norquist said. “But instead, if you want to argue how did we fail to win all of those tight races there? Well, one of the reasons is [Democrats] were brandishing on TV their little ‘get out of jail free’ card from the Chamber.”

During the 2020 cycle, the Chamber split its support in the House between Democrats and Republicans, while it stood uniformly behind Republicans in the Senate.

The Chamber contributed to 47 House Democratic candidates and 48 House Republican candidates, according to the Open Secrets database of the Center for Responsive Politics. In the Senate, the Chamber contributed to 19 GOP candidates and zero Democrats.

The moves also angered the conservative Club for Growth.

David McIntosh, president of Club for Growth PAC, said the Chamber’s decision to support incumbent Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District over the victorious GOP candidate Nancy Mace is a perfect example of how the Chamber went wrong.

“Unfortunately, the Chamber of Commerce has become an organization that represents a few corporations and not the pro-growth policies that create a healthy economy and competition,” said Mr. McIntosh in a statement. “Too many of their candidates support crony capitalism, subsidies, regulatory capture, and other anti-competitive policies.”

Some self-styled moderate Republicans, however, believe that the Chamber may still be an important ally in taking control of the House in 2022.

The Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate GOP group that is already recruiting candidates for key House races in the 2022 midterms, counts the Chamber as a key ally.

Partnership CEO Sarah Chamberlain said no one expected Republicans to retake the House. She credited the Chamber with helping Republicans score key victories, including Sen. Roger Marshall’s win in Kansas and Rep. Randy Feenstra’s primary win over embattled Rep. Steve King, who was removed from his committee posts in 2019 for remarks deemed supportive of white supremacists.

Ms. Chamberlain said that had Mr. King won the Republican nomination for his congressional seat again, he would have both damaged incumbent GOP Sen. Joni Ernst’s reelection chances and given Democrats a chance to flip the House seat.

“I think we should not be arguing about what coulda, shoulda been. I think we need to be focused on 2022,” Ms. Chamberlain said.

The Chamber is focused now on 2021. In concert with its Georgia chapter, the Chamber mounted a $2 million push in December to boost GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler ahead of their January runoff elections, which will determine which party controls the upper chamber.

Mr. Norquist said the Chamber made a big miscalculation in assuming Democrats would enjoy sweeping electoral victories in November, though they appeared to be trying to make amends in the Georgia runoffs.

“The Chamber is going to have to decide are you the representative of the entire business community on issues that affect the entire business community — labor law, tort reform, judges, I’m sure there are other ones but generally regulations — or is there some sort of effort to cobble up and make temporary alliances,” Mr. Norquist said. “For what? For what? Have they read the Democratic Party’s playbook, what they want with Green New Deal?”

The Chamber has made its decision. It will look to make inroads with the incoming Biden administration and seek out allies on both sides of the aisle. Mr. Bradley said the Chamber will work with whomever the Biden administration appoints.

Chamber officials say the organization is not an extension of either political party and balk at complaints they cost Republicans a House majority.

They describe the Chamber’s mission as advancing free enterprise and the priorities of the business community by building bipartisan support for legislation that promotes business.

Mr. Biden is likely to rely on longstanding relationships from his years in the Senate for guidance on issues that matter to the Chamber. Less than two weeks after the November election, Mr. Biden met with labor union leaders and the leaders of companies such as Microsoft, General Motors and Target.

The AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, and United Auto Workers were among the first advocacy groups to bend Mr. Biden’s ear after Election Day.

The Chamber may not yet have a seat at the table with Mr. Biden, but it will likely get an audience with others in the Biden White House. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ database, the Chamber gave $1,000 in the 2020 cycle to Rep. Cedric Richmond, Louisiana Democrat, who intends to join the Biden administration as a White House senior adviser.

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