THE INFLUENCE GAME: Lobbying on debt limit fight

July 27, 2011 - 4:13 PM
Debt Showdown

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio walks through a basement corridor in the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 27, 2011, after an afternoon caucus with House Republicans seeking an agreement on legislation to raise the nation's debt limit. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hospital associations, labor groups, tea party supporters and die-hard liberals are plunging into the debt battle between President Barack Obama and Congress as it whirls toward a final showdown. Yet many lobbyists concede that the fight is so intensely political and mutates so fast that it's been hard to make much of an impact.

That uncertainty — coupled with a widespread expectation that lawmakers will ultimately agree on a debt limit extension anyway — help explain why lobbying on the issue has been relatively low key. That's a stark contrast to the high-profile lobbying wars of 2009 and 2010 over Obama's health care and financial regulation overhauls.

"We thought about whether we should be doing more paid media," or advertising, said executive director Justin Ruben of the liberal MoveOn.org, which is mobilizing its 5 million members to tell Congress that they oppose potential cuts in benefit programs like Medicare. "The main thing holding us back is the speed with which events are moving."

The government is less than a week away from exhausting its $14.3 trillion borrowing authority, and administration officials and others warn that an economy-rattling default could occur if lawmakers don't raise that ceiling by Tuesday. Weeks of on-again, off-again negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders and an ever-shifting menu of competing plans have combined to make it hard for lobbyists to decide what to target.

Though they have avoided expensive advertising campaigns, business and financial groups have visited countless lawmakers to lobby on one overriding subject: The importance of extending the debt ceiling.

This week, big guns including the giant U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Financial Services Roundtable alerted all House members that they supported the debt-limit bill by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Boehner's measure — which the House could vote on Thursday — would trim spending and extend borrowing authority for several months, then extend it again if Congress agrees to additional cuts.

"This legislation is critical. Default on debt obligations is not an acceptable option," the chamber wrote in a letter warning lawmakers that it would watch their votes closely.

The chamber is traditionally a major benefactor of GOP political campaigns and its support for the party is crucial. It spent millions in campaign advertising that helped Republicans in the 2010 elections, and almost 90 percent of the $104,000 it contributed that year backed GOP candidates, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The Financial Services Roundtable, representing 100 of the nation's biggest financial firms, also wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The two have been laboring on a fallback plan to extend the debt limit if other bills fail. The letter urged them to continue their efforts, saying, "Defaulting on the U.S. debt is not a viable path for the economy."

Their public image still smarting from the financial meltdown and the government's $700 billion bailout, financial groups have worked on the issue mostly behind the scenes, quietly visiting the Capitol to make their point.

From the conservative end of the GOP's spectrum, the pressure has been in the opposite direction. Dissatisfied that Boehner's plan controls spending sufficiently, many conservative groups have lobbied against the speaker's proposal, saying it failed to make a major impact on federal deficits and the size of government.

The Club for Growth told lawmakers this week that it would base its support for their re-election, in part, on whether they oppose Boehner's plan. The Tea Party Express held a small rally near the Capitol on Wednesday, while the Tea Party Patriots have been using email and social networking websites to prompt its members to call Congress and express opposition to Boehner's bill.

"I don't feel like Speaker Boehner is taking this problem seriously," said Jenny Beth Martin, a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. "We're seeing the games that go on in Washington all the time."

Liberals are also working the battle, trying to rally Democrats to oppose Boehner's effort and to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from budget cuts.

Unions have bought ads in Capitol Hill newspapers and visited lawmakers, arguing that working families would be hurt while the rich and corporations would be protected. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has contacted 26,000 of its most active members, urging them to call Congress and make those points.

"Our goal is to keep Democratic defections to a minimum," said AFSCME's top lobbyist, Chuck Loveless.

Underscoring a hesitancy to invest huge resources, television advertising has been relatively scant. That's a sharp contrast to the epic battle over Obama's health care bill in 2009 and 2010, when each month tens of millions of dollars in ads flooded the airwaves.

One group that is investing in television ads is the Coalition to Protect America's Health Care, representing hospital groups. It has been spending $1 million weekly on a spot on national cable networks featuring three elderly people complaining about potential cuts in Medicare reimbursements to hospitals. The ad is aimed at future battles over budget cuts from an industry that believes it was already hurt by savings forced by the health care overhaul and other bills.

"Our message is pretty straight-forward, enough is enough," said Rick Pollack, executive vice president of the American Hospital Association, who is helping to run the coalition.

Other pre-emptive lobbying campaigns are also under way, targeting specific savings proposed in the debt fight that may be taken up at a later date.

CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, is battling the National Association of Broadcasters over a proposal to auction off more of the nation's airwaves, which wireless companies want to deliver Internet services. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has proposed raising $13 billion for the government over 10 years by selling spectrum space.

A group of companies and trade groups is lobbying to head off an Obama proposal to raise revenue with an accounting change that would increase their taxes. Lobbyist Jade West, overseeing the effort, says her goal is to make sure the plan doesn't become part of next year's debate on overhauling the tax code.

As for the immediate fight over extending the debt limit, some lobbyists say lawmakers are too focused on political questions — such as whether they could survive a party primary challenge back home — to listen to Washington trade groups.

"I don't see that as being very susceptible to a lot of association lobbying. It's electoral politics," said Bill Hughes, senior vice president for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, representing many of the country's largest retailers.

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Associated Press writer Joelle Tessler contributed to this report.