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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.

“They’re funding the campaigns of people who want to put them out of business,” the aide said, adding that business groups often rationalize their giving because they think Democrats will be willing to work with them.

“They’re helping the DCCC elect more people to come to Congress to rail against Corporate America and business,” the aide said. “These guys are not good for business.”

The frustration comes against the backdrop of a grim fundraising picture for House Republicans.

The National Republican Congressional Committee was $29 million short of its Democratic counterpart in cash on hand as of Jan. 31.

In a closed-door session earlier this week, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) exhorted his colleagues to get off their “dead asses” and start raising money for the party. Fully 142 of them have not yet pledged or contributed funds to the NRCC.

Giving by corporate political action committees isn’t helping. Just last cycle, Republicans claimed two of every three dollars doled out by the PACs.

But in 2007, Democrats neutralized that advantage, vacuuming up about half of all corporate PAC donations, according to a Roll Call review.

Of the four major phone companies, only Sprint is now favoring Democrats overall, giving the majority party about 57 percent of their PAC contributions, according to CQ MoneyLine.

The other three companies, AT&T, Verizon and Qwest, still give a majority to Republicans but by slimmer margins than in years past.

AT&T gave Democrats 38 percent of their PAC dollars last year, up 8 percentage points from the 2006 cycle; Verizon gave them 47 percent, up 10 percentage points from the last cycle; and Qwest gave them 49 percent, a 22 percentage-point boost over 2006, according to records from the FEC and CQ MoneyLine.

AT&T spokeswoman Claudia Jones declined to comment, and Verizon spokesman David Fish was unavailable at press time.

Sprint spokesman John Taylor said the company does not discuss the FISA issue, even to confirm it is actively lobbying it on Capitol Hill. He said the company’s top priority — lowering the fees it pays AT&T and Verizon for access to their networks — does not break evenly along partisan lines.

They have found support for their position among some key Democrats, including House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who held a hearing on the issue in October.

Qwest, meanwhile, is not actively lobbying on FISA, according to Shirley Bloomfield, the company’s senior vice president for federal relations. The company reportedly refused to participate in the wiretapping program and thus has no interest in the retroactive immunity provision at the core of the standoff in the House. “We’re only interested in prospective immunity,” Bloomfield said. “So we really have watched the issue for certain logistical things.”

Bloomfield, who joined the company last year, said Qwest is splitting its money evenly this year because “we work with everybody.”

The Denver-based company focuses its PAC giving on lawmakers from the Western states where it operates, and on members of key committees, Bloomfield said.

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