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Democrats Reach Out to Lobbyists for Help on Debt Talks

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call

A source who worked on the letter said privately that the missive is the tip of a larger, behind-the-scenes lobbying effort to educate Members of Congress, particularly freshman Republicans, on the perils of not raising the debt ceiling. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s R. Bruce Josten and other top business lobbyists have been privately meeting with Members for months, the source said.

But the business lobby has two problems that might prevent it from an all-out campaign complete with advertisements and grass-roots mobilization.

For one, K Street has been working all year to court freshman Republican Members on some of the business community’s signature priorities, such as passing three free-trade agreements, so it doesn’t want to attack them publicly on the debt debate.

Additionally, the business community does not speak with one voice on the debt issue. While Wall Street and Main Street businesses agree — in theory — that defaulting on the nation’s debt would be disastrous for the economy, when it comes to how the debt debate is resolved, each industry and each company is looking out for No. 1.

“Primarily clients are looking at, ‘OK, how is this going to potentially affect me, and how am I going to shore up my situation?’” said one downtown lobbyist who represents multiple business clients. “They have shareholders that are worried. Instead of everybody all joining hands and saying, ‘Here’s what we need to do for the good of the nation,’ they’re just all about me.” This lobbyist noted that the same thing is going on around Capitol Hill, where politicians are worried about their own re-election prospects.

Several K Street sources noted that even though the U.S. Chamber has invested millions of dollars on issue and political advertising campaigns on other debates, the big business group cannot put its resources behind a deal until its membership has seen the agreement. Some companies, which might be targeted for funding cuts or tax increases, would not want their lobbying groups pushing for it.

Dorothy Coleman, vice president of tax and domestic economic policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, which signed on to Tuesday’s letter, said that her group has made it clear for a year that the federal government must meet its debt obligations.

“That said, our members are always concerned about the deficit and our spending problem,” she said. “Consequently, we definitely think that you need to look at discretionary spending and mandatory spending.”

But NAM, Coleman added, is firmly against any business-tax increases. The Senate, for example, has already voted to kill an ethanol industry tax subsidy, and Democrats are targeting other tax credits, such as those for corporate jets, for inclusion in any debt and deficit reduction deal.

Coleman said that it’s “premature” to speculate about whether the business community would launch any ads or publicly step up the pressure on Members to vote for the debt limit increase. She also defended the business community’s letter as being a major step.

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