- Associated Press - Monday, October 4, 2010

During the worst of the economic crisis, the nation’s most powerful business lobby pleaded with Congress to prop up financial institutions and stimulate the economy with hundreds of billions of dollars in borrowed money.

“Make no mistake: When the aftermath of congressional inaction becomes clear, Americans will not tolerate those who stood by and let the calamity happen,” wrote Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president in September 2008, who at the time pressed lawmakers before their vote on a $700 billion TARP bailout for Wall Street.

Mr. Josten and the chamber strongly urged another “yes” vote just months later as lawmakers wrestled over whether to pass President Obama’s $814 billion economic stimulus package of tax cuts and federal spending.

Fast-forward to the present. The chamber is spending millions of dollars on ads trying to elect candidates whose campaigns are based on opposing the very bank rescue and stimulus law it once supported.

Lawmakers who voted with the chamber on the two crisis-era measures are getting the back of its hand, among them Sen. Barbara Boxer in California and Senate hopefuls Reps. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania, Paul Hodes in New Hampshire and Brad Ellsworth in Indiana - all Democrats.

“What they want is one of their own,” said Mr. Sestak, who is running against former Rep. Pat Toomey, who denounced the bank rescue and the economic stimulus as ill-advised government interventions. “So back when we were salvaging the nation, that was then.”

The chamber’s strategy underscores an all-or-nothing approach to lobbying, in which partial support of the business lobby’s agenda is not sufficient and recent clashes trump past agreements.

Since the bank bailout and stimulus program, the four Democrats have taken stances contrary to what the business lobby wanted. They voted for Mr. Obama’s health care law and a consumer financial protection bureau. They supported an energy bill reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and backed bills to make organizations like the chamber disclose donors who help pay for political ads.

“The chamber looks at an endorsement on a broad range of issues, certainly not just one or two issues alone,” said J.P. Fielder, a spokesman for the Washington-based group. “Looking at this so narrowly is like looking at the wrong end of a telescope.”

The bank rescue initiated by former President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama’s recovery program aimed at stimulating economic growth have become two of the most popular Republican targets this election season as well as a primary fuel for “tea party” activism across the country.

Republican Senate hopeful Rand Paul in Kentucky, endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, so opposed the bank bailout that he refused during the primary to accept financial backing from senators who voted for it.

Another critic is Carly Fiorina, the California Republican Senate candidate who is challenging Mrs. Boxer. The stimulus spending is one of Mrs. Fiorina’s main avenues of attack against the three-term incumbent. She says it has not led to promised job growth but is sticking taxpayers with a huge tab.

“When the stimulus was passed, the California unemployment rate was 10.2 percent. It is now 12.4 percent. The stimulus was a failure,” Mrs. Fiorina said in a recent telephone interview. The chamber has endorsed Mrs. Fiorina and spent more than $2 million on TV ads criticizing Mrs. Boxer.

“I think it’s hypocritical with a capital ‘H,’ ” said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, of the business lobby’s campaign effort.

Mr. Fielder, the Chamber’s spokesman, said the group scored Mrs. Boxer favorably on three of the seven votes it used to rank lawmakers. All votes get equal weight, so votes on the stimulus bill and health care overhaul are measured equally with less momentous legislation, such as a bill to promote the U.S. travel industry.