WASHINGTON (AP) — Traditional ties between the business community and the Republican Party are fraying on Capitol Hill, where the House GOP has bucked corporate interests on a series of priorities this year, from immigration to highway funding to trade.
Rebuffed in Congress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have found more success backing pro-business candidates for election, but even they don't always deliver.
It adds up to a significant shift in how the GOP operates, ushered in by the rise of the tea party movement and its distrust of the federal government and of big corporate America. But whether the business community's success this year in electing its favored candidates in primaries can swing the pendulum back its way remains to be seen. There's plentiful evidence that the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups are struggling to get a hearing from congressional conservatives who outright reject their goals and are having outsized influence on House leaders and legislation.
"I think it's the Chamber that's drifted away from conservative pro-business values, not Republicans," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., a conservative who said that the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups may speak for corporate America, but they don't speak for him. "I think that the Chamber has been moving away from its traditional role and that is to protect small businesses. I don't know why."
This past week the divide played out in the debate over whether to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, a government agency that makes and guarantees loans to help U.S. exporters sell their products. It's a priority for the business community, but conservatives have seized on it as the latest example of corporate welfare, with conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation urging lawmakers to stand opposed.
It's certainly a minor matter to most voters, and some more establishment-aligned Republicans marveled that it's become an issue at all.
"I never thought in my wildest dreams that the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank could become a defining issue for Republicans," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.
Yet the conservative opposition has been such that the newly elected House majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reversed himself and announced his opposition to the bank, and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, a supporter in the past and a leading business ally, elected to remain neutral in this go-round.
As with last year's government shutdown, it's an issue where conservative Republicans swatted away the desires of business leaders and their GOP allies, in the process delighting Republican base voters and possibly turning off moderates.
"The Chamber was kind of like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, but since 2007, 2008 I think that's changed," said John Feehery, a Republican consultant who worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "Some people see it as a negative, they see it as being suspect. And that's a sea change really."