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Biz Lobbyists React to Democratic Takeover

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. It's been a great romance - Republicans who finally regained control of Congress a dozen years ago and the lobbyists who make Washington's K Street corridor their home. But now, maybe that's over.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: K Street can count the votes as well as anyone.

Mr. BILL MILLER (Political Director, U.S. Chamber of Commerce): You know, we're disappointed that we lost a lot of friends.

OVERBY: That's Bill Miller. He's political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber spent record sums for a midterm election, but it campaigned for only one House Democrat. So now there are fences to mend.

Mr. MILLER: Looking forward, as we always do, we congratulate the new Democrat majorities and we intend to work with them to the degree that we can to make the business climate a better one for the nation's companies.

OVERBY: Take immigration reform. Two months ago, Republican hard-liners got Congress to order construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican Border. Business, the White House and congressional Democrats all resisted that as a simplistic fix. And now, Miller says…

Mr. MILLER: The President has a real opportunity to reach out to the Democrats in the House in the Senate - with our help - to try and craft a bill that's more comprehensive.

OVERBY: Maybe so on immigration. But on other fronts progressive groups are crowing. Critics of free trade agreements say at least 27 new House members will oppose sweeping NAFTA-like trade deals. And here is Gene Karpinsky, head of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. He was ruminating yesterday on a Congress where Democrats committees and the committees have subpoena power.

Mr. GENE KARPINSKY (U.S. Public Interest Research Group): We never got the answers to who was in the room with Dick Cheney when he wrote the energy bill. That will be an interesting question to try and find out when Henry Waxman chairs that committee.

OVERBY: Waxman, a California Democrat, will likely chair the House committee best positioned to investigate White House operations. Karpinsky spoke at a post-election press conference. Downtown D.C. was like a press conference carnival yesterday. You could have spent most of the day roaming just a few square blocks south of K Street and getting the day-after spin from any number of interest groups.

Karpinsky and other environmentalist were at the National Press Club. Two powerful business groups chose a swankier spot: The Willard Hotel, practically next door to the White House. They soft peddled any idea of hard times ahead. Grey Casey is head of the Business Industry Political Action Committee.

Mr. GREG CASEY (Business Industry Political Action Committee): A lot of the folks who are entering Congress this session both in the Senate and in the House are of a more conservative bent - former Republicans, very conservative Democrats.

OVERBY: And it's those newcomers, along with an existing alliance of conservative blue dog Democrats, who can pull the House Democrats their direction. Or at least business lobbyists hope so.

Nobody mentioned another popular way of making friends. Most of the incoming Democrats ran up serious campaign debts, some into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's traditional for new lawmakers to hold debt retirement events when they get to D.C., where political action committees can chip in. Appearing with Greg Casey was Jay Timmons, senior vice president for policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. He has a more hard-edged take on dealing with Democrats.

Mr. JAY TIMMONS (Senior Vice President for Policy, National Association of Manufacturers): I think that Speaker Pelosi and her team will be very interested in the majority that last beyond two years, and the way to accomplish that is to work with non-traditional allies.

OVERBY: Non-traditional allies that, right now, are in the market to replace some dear departed old friends.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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