Conservatives Strain GOP, Chamber of Commerce Ties

TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

Amid cries of "fascism" and "McCarthyism," a bitter fight has erupted between conservative Republican leaders in Congress and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that reflects the deepening split within the GOP and the shadow it casts over the party's future.

U.S. business, represented in Washington by the Chamber and similar organizations, has long been a mainstay of the Republican Party. And the fight with the Chamber, including a reported effort to oust the organization's national leaders and decimate its membership, threatens to entangle the business community in the ideological donnybrook already under way between moderate and conservative factions of the GOP.

The ideological battle inside the GOP began even before President Clinton won the November election, ending 12 years of Republican control of the White House. But extending the quarrel through the ranks of the business community, as the fight with the Chamber threatens to do, would be a significant escalation and compound the difficulty of uniting the party against the Democrats.

GOP Chairman Haley Barbour, dismissing any suggestion that the fight represents a split in the party, said: "Clinton's economic program has done more to unify the party than anything I could do as chairman.

"I don't have a dog in this fight," he declared, "but I think a lot of people in the business community feel betrayed by the Chamber. Small businessmen particularly can't understand why some group that holds itself out in favor of less government intrusion would be supporting this government growth package of more taxes, spending and regulations."

But others in the GOP, including moderate members of Congress, said they worry that the discord will further divide and divert Republicans.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) said the party is continuing a pattern of instigating fights among friends rather than spending time on priority targets. "It's the reason our party's numbers shrank in the 1980s," he said.

The immediate issue began with angry complaints by conservative Republicans that the Chamber is soft on parts of Clinton's economic program. After simmering for two months, the battle has turned nasty with a flood of angry messages, charges and countercharges, and threats of dire consequences if Chamber officials do not toe the party line.

Throughout the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations, the Chamber was one of the staunchest supporters of the White House. But now, with a Democrat in the Oval Office, GOP leaders complain that a cozy relationship has developed between the Chamber and the White House.

The organization should be denouncing Clinton's program instead of negotiating over its shape, they contend.

In an angry letter to Richard Lesher, longtime Chamber president, six GOP House leaders declared: "The Chamber's apparent unwillingness to adopt an aggressive posture is even more disturbing when you contrast it to your position throughout the 1980s, when you were at the vanguard of those business groups that marshaled public support for the Reagan economic program. . . . "

The conservatives, headed by House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, contend that the Chamber has abandoned the principles of free enterprise by failing to oppose every facet of what they say is a Democratic tax-and-spend program.

Some of the conservatives are using the Easter congressional recess to denounce the national group at meetings of local Chambers of Commerce.

One of them, Texas Rep. Dick Armey, chairman of the Republican Conference Committee, denounced the national Chamber before the Dallas Chamber of Commerce this week, though he characterized himself as more disappointed than angry with the national Chamber leadership.

Lesher, a political independent, is vigorously resisting the pressure. The Chamber is not an arm of the Republican Party but an independent body of 215,000 businesses, about 30% of them headed by Democrats, he said.

All of the Fortune 500 firms are members, but about 96% of the member companies have 100 or fewer employees, he noted.

While the Chamber has endorsed the Clinton economic program's goals, it also has strongly criticized and testified against many aspects of the program at congressional hearings, including provisions to make tax increases retroactive and put off spending cuts.

Lesher said the 60-member governing board of the Chamber unanimously backs his position of negotiating with the Administration to influence the shape of the final economic program instead of opposing it from top to bottom.

Some board members, he said, "thought it was outrageous and went ballistic" when they read a March 25 letter to him from the GOP House leaders declaring that the Chamber's position on the Clinton program was unacceptable and that the "ramifications (of its actions) could be quite severe."

The letter was signed by Michel, Gingrich and Armey, as well as by Conference Committee Vice Chairman Bill McCollum of Florida; Study Committee Chairman Tom DeLay of Texas and Policy Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois.

The six GOP leaders wrote that after several brutally frank discussions with Chamber officials and "before we pass the point of no return," they wanted to warn of "a rapidly spreading frustration and anger with the Chamber's failure to take an aggressive posture on the Clinton economic program."

Ivan W. Gorr, chairman of the Chamber board, sent a letter to all House Republicans that denounced the GOP leaders for "misrepresenting" the Chamber's position and added:

"We infer from various statements in your letter that, if we do not adopt positions acceptable to you, we will suffer the 'consequences.' This apparent attempt to dictate to us what our policies should be is deeply offensive.

"Our 215,000 members represent the broad diversity of the American business community," he said, adding that they are "unified in their interest in creating and preserving the best business climate . . . whether or not our positions are pleasing to any political party or policy group."

Gorr wrote that he hoped the Republican Party would not condone such tactics and said: "The irony of your approach will not be lost on our members--that a small group of legislators, who espouse the principle of limiting government interference in business, is attempting to interfere in the democratic policy-making process of a business organization."

Lesher, who had considered himself close to all the House GOP leaders, especially Gingrich, said he also was incensed by the attack. "I've played a lot of hardball as president of the Chamber, and I've had to deal with Presidents Reagan and Bush lobbying my board members from Air Force One. But these people are playing dirty pool and using tactics that have no place in a democracy. I've gone through the most disgusting week in my 18 years as president of the Chamber," he said. "It's just been awful."

His board members, he said, are equally upset at the GOP attack and "at least three of them said it was the McCarthyism of the '90s and some said it was fascism and has no place in American life."

Lesher, although still fighting a tide of protests generated by the conservatives, insists that only 35 or 40 firms have sought to resign from the national Chamber. He said that all but half a dozen remained as members after Chamber officers explained their side of the controversy.

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