Mon, Aug 10, 2009 - Page 11 News List

Chamber at odds with Obama’s policies


If US President Barack Obama wants to take the measure of his opposition, he only has to glance across Lafayette Park from the White House. There, behind 10 massive Corinthian columns, is the headquarters of the US Chamber of Commerce — a leading critic of the administration’s healthcare and banking overhaul plans.

A fortress for the business community, the chamber has emerged as a multitasking, multimillion dollar defender of the private sector against presidential initiatives. As lawmakers spend time at home during this month’s vacation hearing from constituents, the chamber is adding its own heat to the season.

There’s a US$2 million campaign against Obama’s proposals that would make the government a competitor in the health insurance market. It’s trying to make the case for insurers, which oppose a government-run insurance alternative, but want to work with the White House to mandate coverage for all.

The chamber also has become a pointed critic of a White House plan to create a consumer finance protection agency and is assembling finance sector trade groups to push for a delay in legislation.

With 3 million members, the chamber is working with local and regional affiliates on letter-writing campaigns to lawmakers and plans to track their public appearances to make sure they hear the chamber’s point of view.

The summer effort is just a start.

The group is also readying an ambitious US$100 million campaign to advocate for businesses and a free enterprise system, which chamber officials believe is under attack. The chamber is putting lawmakers on notice — the issues campaign will be timed to lead into next year’s congressional elections.

“You’ve got an administration pushing the federal government into a bigger and bigger footprint,” said Bruce Josten, the chamber’s chief lobbyist. “CEOs start to get concerned when they see that. We felt we needed someone to step into this space.”

Critics point out the chamber objects to government interference in the private sector even though it supported federal efforts to rescue the financial industry with hundreds of billions of dollars and to bail out struggling automakers. What’s more, the chamber is setting itself up as a foil to the administration on healthcare, while insurers and the health industry seek to negotiate with the White House.

As part of its healthcare effort, the chamber is running newspaper and online ads against a government-run insurance option that are targeted at moderate Democrats and Republicans in five states. On banking rules, it recently organized the financial industry to call for a delay in legislation that would set up a consumer protection agency.

The chamber stands out for the bluntness of its criticism.

A trade group representing drug manufacturers, for instance, is running an ad broadly supporting healthcare changes. In a reversal, the ad features a fictional couple, Harry and Louise, who appeared in ads by the insurance industry in 1993 opposed to former president Bill Clinton’s health plan.

The insurance industry opposes a government-run alternative to private insurers, but instead of criticizing, the US’ Health Insurance Plans is running ads encouraging universal coverage and calling for “bipartisan reforms.”

“We’ve been focusing on what we’re for,” said Robert Zirkelbach, the group’s spokesman.

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