Big business prepares for a less friendly Washington

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 5, 2008 

WASHINGTON — After years of playing offense, big business is getting ready for the less familiar role of playing defense following President-elect Barack Obama's victory and legislative gains by other Democrats.

Corporate America enjoyed favorable treatment under the Bush administration for almost eight years and for most of the era of Republican control of Congress from 1995 to 2007.

Now unions may gain a stronger hand, and business is bracing for greater financial regulation, worker-friendly policies and an emphasis on social spending.

From a guarded view on trade to expanded collective-bargaining rights, there's a new wind blowing through the Capitol and big business groups are bracing for a storm.

One reason they're sure to find a less sympathetic ear is that members of groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent big bucks trying to defeat Democrats in congressional races.

Instead, Democrats expanded their numbers in both chambers. That left these groups on Wednesday trying to put a bright face on results that gave Democrats at least five more Senate seats and 18 new members of the House of Representatives.

"There are many areas of potential cooperation," John Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan and now the president of the manufacturers' group, said in an optimistic morning-after news conference.

Greg Casey, president of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, offered: "It's an opportunity for the American people to ask for competence in government."

Business lobbies can take solace in one important development: Democrats appear to have failed to win enough Senate seats to reach the 60-vote margin needed to cut off debate and force votes on controversial legislation.

This numbers game is important because unions have their eye on rapid passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which was supported by Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden. The legislation would end seven decades of secret balloting during union drives and instead allow organizers to collect signatures from a majority of workers to form a union. This process is called "card check."

"We're very optimistic about an Obama presidency. The Employee Free Choice Act is our number one legislative priority for next year and we are going to be pushing very hard," said Thea Lee, the chief economist for the AFL-CIO. "It was the centerpiece of our electoral efforts . . . we are very confident that it will happen."

Less than 24 hours after the election, both unions and big business were busy identifying who they'd be pressuring if the issue goes to a vote early next year. Many House members voted for it earlier this year, knowing that it wouldn't pass the Senate.

Now, with a president who won't veto the pro-union legislation, more Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in disarray, it's a different ballgame.

"Next time out its not going to be considered a 'free vote' by anybody, so that's a changing dynamic," said R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of government affairs for the Chamber of Commerce. "I am still positive that we can defeat it."

Manufacturers fear an early vote on the question.

"This is not the time and certainly not the issue to build a relationship," Engler said, suggesting that Obama and Democrats will need big business to help turn around the economy. He identified Virginia's Democratic senator-elect, Mark Warner, a pro-business centrist, as a Democrat he'll be lobbying to block the card-check measure.

While recognizing that unions will have a voice in the White House for the first time in many years, the Chamber's Josten wasn't worried that he won't be heard.

"I had to fight for two years with the Republican majority in Congress on immigration (reform) . . . the majority of people we were fighting were Republicans," he said. He also recalled that the business group also fought a losing battle against complicated new accounting rules after energy giant Enron's collapse.

With the jobless rate expected to rise above 7 percent before Obama takes office and the economy expected to contract sharply over the 10 weeks until inauguration, Josten thinks that reversing the economic slump will trump any activist agenda.

"It's the economy, the economy and the economy," he said. "Obama is a smart guy and he knows his policies depend on the economy growing."

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