In the aftermath of a paralyzing congressional budget fight that this month shut down the government and threatened financial default, the business community has been left fuming.
“We think many of the issues that many of these folks have raised are really important issues," U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue said of the Republican conservatives whose fight over Obamacare shuttered the government for 16 days. "But we do believe to advance those interests by putting the country’s whole financial system at risk is not a good idea.”
The fight — and conservatives' rejection of business community warnings about the economic chaos it could create — now has the Chamber and other business groups long aligned with the Republican Party weighing whether to fight back. The groups are considering taking a page from conservatives' own playbook by recruiting and funding business-friendly candidates against Tea Party incumbents in next year's Republican congressional primaries.
Already, two moderate Republicans have stepped up to challenge Michigan Republican Reps. Justin Amash and Kerry Bentivolio, two ardent conservatives.
Donohue said no decisions have been made about what candidates the national Chamber of Commerce might support in 2014, but the group has a history of engaging in Republican primary races, as do local chambers of commerce.
“The frustration is this: If you want to defeat Democrats, you don’t form a circular firing squad,” said one source with a group that lobbies for the financial industry. “[Congressional conservatives] are making it easier for the Democrats to win.”
Still, a battle royale might not be on the horizon.
Business and financial interests have been reluctant to challenge conservative Republicans because they share the lawmakers' views on other major issues, like taxation and spending. That dynamic makes the current state of play, and business groups’ likely engagement during the midterm elections, much less dramatic than it would seem.
“In some ways this is nothing more than the traditional blocking and tackling of what a PAC or political operation would be doing anyway, which is [identifying] what candidates would be most aligned with the viewpoint of the PAC or the political operation,” said David French, lead lobbyist for the National Retail Federation.
Moreover, the business community, long aligned with the Republican Party, was not displeased by the outcome of the recent budget fight, which raised the debt ceiling until February 2014 and ultimately funded the government, nor surprised by the legislative waffling preceding it. Looking ahead to future fiscal debates, the business community anticipates conservative Republicans will protect its pet policies.
The current split between business interests and conservatives, then, is less philosophical than tactical, with the business community irked at Republicans’ intraparty squabbling.
The recent budget impasse on Capitol Hill was marked by Republican-on-Republican fighting, led by conservative lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and outside groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, which targeted Republicans considered too moderate and too willing to compromise.
Conservative groups engage in anti-Republican rhetoric gamely, because they are concerned less with winning congressional majorities than in ensuring that safe Republican seats are held by the most conservative lawmakers.
The business community, meanwhile, has long wielded its influence inside Washington by helping Republicans to win majorities and subsequently leaning on party leaders to protect businesses.
But, as the recent budget fight demonstrated, congressional leaders are less influential than they once were, in part because conservative lawmakers are more beholden to the outside interest groups that helped elect them. That emerging power shift has given Establishment Republicans a new sense of urgency about upcoming primaries, although unlike conservatives, they lack the kind of political infrastructure needed to boost campaigns.
Conservative groups began organizing at the grassroots level much earlier and have become more effective over time at boosting candidates in primary races, advantages conservatives are skeptical that the business community can match in time for the next election.
“They’re upset with the influence conservatives and the Tea Party have had on the way Washington works,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for the conservative group Heritage Action. “But the ability to counter that requires a really coherent and clear message, and that’s going to be a problem for them.”