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Some Democrats uneasy with attacks on Chamber of Commerce

The White House is charging that the politically powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce may be using foreign money to fuel its election efforts. Some allies are questioning the strategy.

October 12, 2010|By Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — In a potential sign of Democratic unease with the White House midterm political strategy, some of President Obama's allies have begun to question his sustained attack on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long claimed bipartisanship but is being increasingly identified as a GOP ally.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill worry that the White House is going too far in charging that the politically powerful business lobby may be using foreign money to fuel its election efforts. The charge ignites strong feelings among job-hungry voters. But Democrats are concerned that it may be overstated and could harm moderate Democrats in swing districts.

The charge was first leveled by a liberal-leaning think tank last week, and since has been pressed by Obama and top White House aides. It stems from allegations that the same chamber fund that takes in dues and fees from overseas memberships is used to finance political activities.

The Chamber of Commerce is on track to spend $75 million in this election cycle, mostly to benefit Republican candidates. Officials of the organization, while refusing to provide internal accounting details, have said that no foreign money is used in its political activities.

The chamber also backs some Democratic candidates for congressional seats, and its local affiliates generally enjoy positive reputations across the country.

Democrats expressing reservations have worked on behalf of moderate candidates with business backing. They recalled past attacks on former President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for receiving foreign money and warned that White House charges now could lead to GOP reprisals, particularly if Republicans gain control of the House.

"The White House may reap the whirlwind," said one top Democratic staffer. "What are we going to do next year if a Republican Congress is making baseless claims about President Obama? We'll want the media to hold them accountable to the facts and the evidence."

The Democratic staffer and a handful of other prominent Democrats spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the topic.

Other Democrats and Democratic groups applaud the tough White House stance, saying it is motivating solid Democratic voters and is a necessary response to extraordinary election-year spending by the chamber.

Even as the president's attacks continue, there were signs that the White House is modulating its message in the face of the criticism.

On Thursday, Obama said at a rally that "one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations."

"So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections," he said.

But on Sunday the president appeared to pull back slightly. Speaking in Philadelphia, he said that donors to groups like the Chamber of Commerce "could even be foreign-owned corporations. … You don't know because they don't have to disclose."

Administration officials said that by emphasizing disclosure, the president is not easing his criticism.

The White House has acknowledged that there is no specific evidence that foreign organizations have funded ads backed by the chamber.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the president was emphasizing disclosure so Americans could be sure who was funding the campaign. He added that the White House had not "suggested any illegality" in the chamber's activities.

Independent campaign finance experts were skeptical of the White House attack, but said full disclosure by the Chamber of Commerce and other groups could deflect criticism.

"The chamber and all other … groups that have some revenues from abroad and do not disclose their funding sources for political ads are vulnerable to what may be weak or bogus charges," said Thomas Mann, a campaign finance expert at the Brookings Institution. "But they have a way out — it's called disclosure."

While the president emphasizes disclosure, the Democratic National Committee continues to distribute an advertisement charging that the chamber and others are using foreign money. "It appears they're even taking secret foreign money to influence our elections," the ad says, while at one point showing a pile of Asian currency.

The dispute over the attack on the chamber in some ways echoes an internal debate going on between the Democratic Party's liberal base and more moderate elements that have encouraged ties to business.

One Democratic consultant, David DiMartino, said Monday that the attack was a good idea, given the chamber's growth in power and partisanship.

"I think it will work to the Democrats' benefit," DiMartino said. "It shows that the president and the Democrats are going to stick up for themselves and it will help mobilize the base. The chamber fired the first shot."

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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