The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobby, which usually aligns itself with Republicans, has been working closely with President-elect Barack Obama on the financial bailout and the economic recovery package.
R. Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president for government affairs, called the presidential transition team's outreach to the organization "expansive and extensive," and said Mr. Obama will have to rely on the organization to pass the stimulus plan.
"He needs the business community first and foremost to help lobby the package that's going to be proposed," Mr. Josten said during an interview Wednesday with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.
In particular, Mr. Josten praised Mr. Obama for asking that 40 percent of the stimulus go to tax cuts.
Mr. Josten said the chamber has participated in 20 lengthy meetings with Mr. Obama's team at which the president-elect's staffers took notes and asked follow-up questions. He said it was the most organized and thorough effort he had seen from a presidential transition.
At the same time, the chamber and Mr. Obama will differ on many issues, he said, especially those backed by Democrats that would benefit organized labor.
Mr. Josten said Senate Democrats are unlikely to wrangle the 60 votes they will need to pass the so-called card check bill -- organized labor's chief legislative priority that would allow workers to organize without having to go through a secret ballot. He predicted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, will lose enough of his own party members in the Senate to allow Republicans to block the effort.
"The 60 is not a safe bet for Harry Reid," Mr. Josten said.
During the last Congress, all Senate Democrats and one Republican voted for the card-check measure during a Republican-led filibuster. This year, Mr. Josten said, several Democrats likely will change their votes, allowing a filibuster.
"They knew as well as I knew that there was no way that could get close to 60, so it was a free vote for them to cast," Mr. Josten said. "It will not any longer be considered a free vote by the business community."
He said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the sole Republican to vote to advance the bill in the last Congress, is looking for a reason to oppose it this time. Mr. Josten also said there were a half-dozen Democrats whose votes are not guaranteed for the bill as written: Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Mr. Josten said the chamber's biggest priority is righting the stumbling economy. He said he is worried that Congress appears to be trimming back the business tax cuts in the economic recovery package, and that the bill might not include a provision that would allow companies to "carry back" current losses for five years rather than the current two years.
Businesses, he said, would like to see the business tax cuts grow to more than $100 billion, though he wouldn't give a specific target number.
He also said he would welcome a repair to the alternative minimum tax, which affects many small-business owners. Congress appeared prepared Wednesday to include a one-year, $70 billion patch to the alternative minimum tax in the stimulus plan, a move that would prevent millions of middle-income Americans from being hit with the tax originally designed to affect millionaires.
The chamber anticipates continued tough economic times this year. "The two bookends bracketing today's economic crisis are the lack of credit and the lack of confidence," Mr. Josten said. Martin A. Regalia, the chamber's chief economist, said business investment has been flat for eight consecutive quarters.
Mr. Josten noted that the nation's total debt level, including debts owed by businesses, households and government, was 350 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). During the Great Depression, that debt level peaked at 250 percent of GDP.
"And we're going to add to it," Mr. Josten said. The federal budget deficit will reach $1.2 trillion this year even before consideration of the two-year, $800 billion stimulus package.
Mr. Josten said that after the economic-stimulus bill is passed, the Obama administration may be "fiscally constrained," making it more difficult for the new president to move forward on the rest of his agenda, and he said Mr. Obama would have a hard time cutting government spending.
"When Obama calls for cutting waste, he will find there is a constituency for every budget line outside Congress and inside Congress," said Mr. Josten, who pointed to congressional and farm-state efforts during the latest farm bill debate.
Mr. Josten said the effort to enact a new immigration law is still "rather radioactive" for Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and that will keep it off the table for a long while.
"I don't think that's an issue we'll hear or see movement on very early," he said.
Mr. Josten had enthusiastic praise for Timothy Geithner, Mr. Obama's nominee to be Treasury secretary, despite revelations Mr. Geithner failed to pay Social Security taxes on his self-employment income from 2001 to 2004 and employed a housekeeper for more than three months after her visa expired in 2005.
"He is the right guy for the job," Mr. Josten said.
Mr. Josten also defended President Bush's tenure, saying that Mr. Bush faced unprecedented hardships.
"I don't want to sound like I'm an apologist or a defender for the president. I want to be fair, but he's had two recessions, he had a terrorist attack, he had one of the largest corporate scandals in probably 70 years to deal with, he had three back-to-back hurricanes which became the largest single natural disaster in the history of this country hit during his term in office," he said. "I think that was fumbled and mishandled, don't misunderstand me, and I think he's now going through a once-in-a-lifetime decline that nobody forecast in housing values in this country. He's had a lot of things rock that ship."
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