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Telecom Donations Rankling the GOP

With the House Democrats’ refusal to grant retroactive immunity to phone companies — stalling the rewrite of the warrantless wiretapping program — GOP leadership aides are grumbling that their party isn’t getting more political money from the telecommunications industry.

Like most corporate interests with a heavy stake in Congressional action, the major phone companies significantly boosted their contributions to Democrats last year after the party surged back into the majority.

But giving by that sector is getting special attention from Republicans now that the debate over the surveillance program is front and center — and focused on the phone companies’ role in aiding the Bush administration after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s quite discouraging,” said one GOP leadership aide, referring to the disparity in giving from the telecommunications industry in light of the FISA debate, but also the broader lack of support for Republicans from the business community in general.

“These companies just won’t do anything,” the aide said. “Even when you have the Democrats working against their bottom line.”

House Republicans have sought to capitalize on the immunity issue by painting Democrats as more interested in enriching their trial lawyer supporters than protecting national security.

In a reflection of the sensitivity of the subject matter, and an apparent recognition that they would undermine their own messaging by appearing to be motivated by fundraising concerns, Republicans on and off Capitol Hill declined to comment on the record.

But several confirmed the griping in GOP leadership ranks over the phone companies’ shifting donations.

“When those numbers are made evident, it causes some angst,” one Republican lobbyist said. “Leadership are told by staff, who look through this. There’s communication back and forth” between GOP leadership and downtown.

“There’s no question that from time to time staff, and maybe some Members, say to fellow travelers: ‘Are you giving us some air cover? Are you helping us help you?’”

Added another K Street Republican: “There’s a growing frustration that a lot of these guys getting screwed by Democratic leadership are continuing to load their coffers.”

Republican leaders, this lobbyist said, “sit there and scratch their heads and say, ‘We’ve always been very supportive of free markets and our opponents haven’t, so why do they keep feeding the beast?’”

Indeed, leadership aides expressed frustration that Democrats have strong and vocal allies in labor unions and other left-leaning interest groups — who often fund large ad campaigns targeting GOP Members on key issues — but Republicans lack a similar mobilization effort to provide them air cover.

Although they attribute that largely to inherent differences in K Street — which must constantly play both sides of the aisle — and labor unions — which rarely, if ever, have to curry favor with the GOP — it still doesn’t make the disparity any more palatable.

“Everyone thinks K Street’s going to do it,” the source said. “They don’t want to lose favor with anyone around here. They hedge their bets.” The aide added: “Perhaps they will get the wake-up call when bad things start happening to them.”

Another leadership aide concurred, arguing that business groups vowed to hold Republicans’ feet to the fire when they were in the majority while the Democratic leadership seems to be getting a free ride.

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