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Chamber Boosts Campaign Focus While Urging Congress Not to

Even as U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue urged Congress today to look beyond the campaign trail and focus on economic growth, he proposed a politically charged agenda and pledged to spend a record sum on this year’s elections.

In his annual State of American Business address, Donohue projected weak economic growth in the early part of the year — hovering around about 2.5 percent — and said improvement would depend on government action on taxes, energy and trade.

He criticized the White House for laying out a slim legislative agenda and focusing on President Barack Obama’s re-election instead of the struggling economy.

“Some Members of Congress will do the same thing — settle into campaign mode, neglecting what they were elected to do, which is move this country forward,” Bruce Josten, the organization’s top lobbyist, said. “In some respects politicking is going to take precedence over policy making. We hope to change that.”

But it was obvious that the chamber also plans to beef up its already aggressive electoral game, focusing in particular on expanding its grass-roots network.

“We clearly do policy issues around anybody’s election,” Donohue said. “We will spend more money than we’ve spent before on the vigorous [voter] education efforts.”

The chamber spent nearly $33 million on federal elections in the 2010 cycle, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The big business lobby is also routinely the top spender on federal lobbying, reporting more than $130 million in 2010.

Donohue also criticized the Republican presidential nominees for targeting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s work in private equity. In the wake of Romney’s victory in New Hampshire, both former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have attacked Romney for his record running the venture capital firm Bain Capital, saying he was responsible for buying companies and laying off employees.

“It’s just been foolish for the Republicans to carry on that attack because it sets up the ad base for their opponents,” Donohue said. “We think Romney has had a pretty good track record. Perfect? Hell no. But damn good.”

The chamber this year plans to press for policies that would expand the energy industry including oil and natural gas development, creating jobs and reinvigorating American manufacturing, Donohue said. As part of that, he said that approving the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is a priority.

A reauthorization of the surface transportation bill and the Federal Aviation Administration is also on the agenda, Donohue said, including building the next generation air traffic control system. He also reiterated the need for online anti-piracy legislation, which is stalled in both the House and Senate amid push-back from Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo.

“When this is all said and done the people who are most agitated by it will be looking for a solution,” he said.

While he gave a nod to the White House and Congress for getting three trade agreements across the finish line last year, he called for more pacts, including a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in the Pacific basin, to create economic growth.

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