Could US Chamber of Commerce be counterweight to tea party?

A report suggests that the US Chamber of Commerce could fund primary challenges to tea party conservatives in 2014. The chamber's chief avoided the question and spoke cautiously about Ted Cruz.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Thomas Donohue, President and CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce speaks to reporters in Washington Monday, Oct. 21, 2013.

The head of the US Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful players in Washington, ducked the question of whether the group would fund primary challenges to tea party conservatives in 2014. But he did offer decidedly cool remarks about Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

At a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters, Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue was asked about recent reports in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere saying the chamber was considering getting involved in Republican primaries in an effort to replace tea party supporters with candidates who were more business friendly and not likely to support a future government shutdown.

“We have no idea what we are going to have on the table. We still have to see who is running, we still have to see what happens on the next activity on the deficit. We still have to see what the circumstances are,” Mr. Donohue said. The chamber will begin making decisions about its congressional election activities in the first quarter of 2014, according to Bruce Josten, the chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, who also spoke at the breakfast.

Last week, Mr. Josten sent a "key vote alert" to House and Senate members urging them to vote for a budget deal which would reopen the government.  “Groups calling for default are clearly less interested in the Main Street concerns of business large and small,” the note said.

Donohue was asked about Senator Cruz, who argued that the House should tie a vote to fund the government with defunding of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. “I don’t know Senator Cruz,” he said. “We are all getting to watch him. I sort of think about him as a tennis player. You know if you are going to rush the net all the time you better have a lot of motion to the left and the right. He hasn’t proved that to me yet.”

The chamber executive added that Cruz “has his right as a member of the Senate to get out and push the things he supports or resist the things he doesn’t support. And we are going to try and work with him wherever we can.”

When a reporter from the Dallas Morning News noted that some in the business community wanted Cruz to “sit down and shut up,” Donohue responded, “Well, that might be one thing we could work on.”

Cruz professes not to be concerned by criticism within the Beltway. In interview last weekend with Jonathan Karl of ABC News, Cruz said, “Given the choice between being reviled in Washington, D.C., and appreciated in Texas – or reviled in Texas and appreciated in Washington, I would take the former 100 out of 100 times.”

While its plans for promoting candidates in Republican primaries have not firmed up, the chamber will “be very vigorous” in seeking to maintain Republican control of the House, Donohue said. “On behalf of the American business community, given a choice, I would not like to see this administration with the White House, the Senate, and the House. I think it would be a long two years,” he said.

Finding a way to control federal spending on entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will remain a top chamber priority, Donohue said. “The truth is that unsustainable entitlements are the root cause of our deficits and debts and please note that is no administration’s fault. It is a demographic reality.”

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