WASHINGTON - 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."
It's a shift Republican activists celebrate.
"It seems like K Street has had an upper hand at the GOP table, and I think that's changing with the decentralization of politics that gives activists a bigger voice," said Matt Kibbe, head of FreedomWorks, an advocacy group affiliated with the tea party. "The tension's always been there but I think that in the past when push came to shove the Chamber was more likely to get its way, and that's not necessarily so anymore."
Mainstream congressional Republicans tend to play down the rift, and Chamber officials say their relations remain good with most GOP lawmakers.
"I think the vast majority of congressional Republicans in the House and in the Senate are traditionally and historically, and continue to be, on basically the same page as the small, medium and large business community," said Bruce Josten, executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"Are there some outliers within the conferences and caucuses that have different views?" Josten said. "Of course. There have always been outliers."
Josten disputed the notion that House Republicans' resistance to renewing the Export-Import Bank, overhauling immigration laws, replenishing the highway trust fund, or other issues was emblematic of a deeper trend.
Even so, the Chamber and other like-minded business groups have worked methodically this year to reduce the number of "outliers," spending millions in Republican primaries to elect more mainstream Republicans over their tea party opponents. They have racked up a string of victories, from Senate races in North Carolina and Kentucky to one most recently in Mississippi, where incumbent Thad Cochran narrowly survived a tea party challenge.
But if the candidates they're choosing are better than the alternatives, there's little sign they share the Chamber's priorities on all issues, particularly immigration, where the U.S. Chamber's alliance with labor unions to support an overhaul alienated some conservatives. And the Chamber's electoral involvement carries some risk, including hardening opposition from tea party lawmakers already on Capitol Hill who may not be going anywhere.
"It's hard for me to offer my staff to the U.S. Chamber to have conversations when they are targeting my allies here in Congress," complained Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. "I think it undercuts their ability to have conversations with members of Congress."