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Big Business Prepares For A Less Friendly Washington

Kevin G. Hall

WASHINGTON - After years of playing offense, big
business is getting ready for the less familiar role of playing defense
following President-elect Barack Obama's victory and legislative gains
by other Democrats.

Corporate America enjoyed favorable
treatment under the Bush administration for almost eight years and for
most of the era of Republican control of Congress from 1995 to 2007.

unions may gain a stronger hand, and business is bracing for greater
financial regulation, worker-friendly policies and an emphasis on
social spending.

a guarded view on trade to expanded collective-bargaining rights,
there's a new wind blowing through the Capitol and big business groups
are bracing for a storm.

One reason they're sure to find a less
sympathetic ear is that members of groups such as the National
Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent big
bucks trying to defeat Democrats in congressional races.

Democrats expanded their numbers in both chambers. That left these
groups on Wednesday trying to put a bright face on results that gave
Democrats at least five more Senate seats and 18 new members of the
House of Representatives.

"There are many areas of potential
cooperation," John Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan and
now the president of the manufacturers' group, said in an optimistic
morning-after news conference.

Greg Casey, president of the
Business-Industry Political Action Committee, offered: "It's an
opportunity for the American people to ask for competence in

Business lobbies can take solace in one important
development: Democrats appear to have failed to win enough Senate seats
to reach the 60-vote margin needed to cut off debate and force votes on
controversial legislation.

This numbers game is important because
unions have their eye on rapid passage of the Employee Free Choice Act,
which was supported by Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden. The
legislation would end seven decades of secret balloting during union
drives and instead allow organizers to collect signatures from a
majority of workers to form a union. This process is called "card

"We're very optimistic about an Obama presidency. The
Employee Free Choice Act is our number one legislative priority for
next year and we are going to be pushing very hard," said Thea Lee, the
chief economist for the AFL-CIO. "It was the centerpiece of our
electoral efforts . . . we are very confident that it will happen."

than 24 hours after the election, both unions and big business were
busy identifying who they'd be pressuring if the issue goes to a vote
early next year. Many House members voted for it earlier this year,
knowing that it wouldn't pass the Senate.

Now, with a president
who won't veto the pro-union legislation, more Democrats in the Senate
and Republicans in disarray, it's a different ballgame.

time out its not going to be considered a 'free vote' by anybody, so
that's a changing dynamic," said R. Bruce Josten, executive vice
president of government affairs for the Chamber of Commerce. "I am
still positive that we can defeat it."

Manufacturers fear an early vote on the question.

is not the time and certainly not the issue to build a relationship,"
Engler said, suggesting that Obama and Democrats will need big business
to help turn around the economy. He identified Virginia's Democratic
senator-elect, Mark Warner, a pro-business centrist, as a Democrat
he'll be lobbying to block the card-check measure.

recognizing that unions will have a voice in the White House for the
first time in many years, the Chamber's Josten wasn't worried that he
won't be heard.

"I had to fight for two years with the Republican
majority in Congress on immigration (reform) . . . the majority of
people we were fighting were Republicans," he said. He also recalled
that the business group also fought a losing battle against complicated
new accounting rules after energy giant Enron's collapse.

the jobless rate expected to rise above 7 percent before Obama takes
office and the economy expected to contract sharply over the 10 weeks
until inauguration, Josten thinks that reversing the economic slump
will trump any activist agenda.

"It's the economy, the economy
and the economy," he said. "Obama is a smart guy and he knows his
policies depend on the economy growing."

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