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By Peter Overby (NPR)
One constant in American politics has been the bond between the Republican party and corporate America.
But with the change in power in Washington, that's no longer a given. Some of the nation's leading business groups supported President Obama's economic stimulus bill.
Now, business lobbyists who used to be part of the GOP team are acting more like free agents.
Just three of the 219 Republicans in Congress voted for the stimulus package last month. But some of their most loyal allies in business had already joined the other side.
For example, in a recent weekly commentary U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue said the bill would help businesses invest and grow.
"That's why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly supported the economic stimulus package recently signed by the president," Donohue said. "Business investment incentives, along with tax rebates for consumers, will help create new jobs."
It's the same story at the National Association of Manufacturers where Jay Timmons oversees lobbying operations.
"There were a good number of provisions that were helpful to business, and none actually that were harmful," said Timmons, who added that the member-led key vote committee chose to designate the stimulus as a "key vote," meaning one the group uses to determine who its congressional friends are.
As a result, when President Obama signed the bill he could cite a bipartisan list of allies, including business leaders, unions and public interest groups.
This differs greatly from the 1990s when Republicans won control of Congress. During the 1994 campaign Newt Gingrich described the GOP as "the party that believes in less regulation, less red tape, less control by Washington."
Today, there are connections that a few years ago would have been unimaginable.
National Association of Manufacturers President John Engler spent three terms as governor of Michigan. Like Gingrich, he championed tax cuts and privatization.
But now, the manufacturers association isn't so concerned about ideology.
"We're going to continue to work with folks on both sides of the aisle, in both the House and Senate, because in the end we all want the same thing, and that's a better economy and jobs," Timmons said.
The Democrats want to talk, too.
"They have reached out to ask us, particularly on the Senate side, about what our ideas are," says John Castellani, who heads up the Business Roundtable, an alliance of some 140 corporate leaders.
Castellani says House Democrats, such as Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, are also making overtures.
"[He] invited me and some of my colleagues in to brief the freshman Democrats.
Castellani's view of Republicans in Congress is phrased cautiously.
"The one thing the Republicans know from the 2008 elections is that you can't beat something with nothing," he says.
Among lobbyists, there's a feeling that they haven't got the luxury of being purists.
"We're anxious to reach out to everybody and anybody," said Dan Danner, president of the National Federation of Independent Business. Fifteen years ago NFIB lobbyists helped make the Gingrich revolution happen.
His small business membership stayed neutral on the stimulus. And last week, Danner was at President Obama's summit on health care. That's the federation's top issue.
"We have talked with the Obama people starting, I believe, in August, well before the election, about health care. And the president's proposals have a lot of things that we would agree with," Danner said.
Certainly not everything, of course.
It's also true that other issues will reunite business and the GOP.
For instance, the business community hates the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give unions a big boost in organizing workplaces. The bill will probably come up for a vote in Congress this year.
But not even that seems likely to disrupt the business lobby's working relationships with Democrats.
This program aired on March 10, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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