Corporate America descended on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning hoping to ride the small business gravy train that's been gaining steam. Instead, they caught an earful from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who didn't appreciate the message they brought.
CEOs representing 11 major corporations argued that the Democratic emphasis on small businesses missed the important role that Big Business has to play, several people in the meeting told HuffPost.
"The way I heard it was, 'Small business was important, but you have to understand that these companies in the room, we work with thousands and thousands of small businesses around the country, so when we're doing well, they're doing well,'" said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
The meeting was organized by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Democratic Steering Committee, and took place just before Democrats voted on a jobs package that consisted mostly of tax breaks for small businesses.
W. James McNerney Jr., chairman, president and CEO of Boeing Company, was one of the more outspoken executives, arguing that helping big business was the same as helping small businesses, and that either way he supported them doing both, not one or the other. For every job created at Boeing, he said, two small business jobs are created.
His argument sparked something in Reid, who recoiled, indicating with his body language and facial expression that he didn't like what he was hearing, according to people in the room. Reid dressed down the CEO and then walked out of the meeting.
HuffPost caught up with Reid in a Senate building hallway outside a health care event and asked him about the exchange. "I think we got it straightened out. I made a couple of statements and I said, 'You're not implying we shouldn't be doing this for small business?' And they retreated very quickly. So I think we got it straightened out," he said.
Did he think that's what they were implying? "Well, that's the way I took it," said Reid.
He walked out, he said, because he had to open the Senate for its daily business and not as a rebuke to the corporate heads. But people in the room said the timing was instructive. "I had to open the Senate, but I told them before I left I wanted to make sure what this was all about," Reid said.
It's all about tax breaks, tax credits and favorable trade policy, according to the message delivered by Reid on Wednesday. And, of course, jobs.
The CEOs have been busy. The group met Tuesday night with Obama to press their case. The list of invitees at Wednesday's meeting included: John J. Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, an industry trade group; David Cote, CEO of Honeywell International; Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase; Michael T. Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart Stores; William Green, CEO of Accenture; Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric Company; Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical Company; Antonio Perez, CEO of Eastman Kodak Company; Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T; and Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon Communications.
Stabenow kicked off her meeting by asking Seidenberg to give a brief rundown of the meeting with Obama.
"They wanted to make sure that they were in the picture," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). "Their point was, 'If you help us, we help small business. If you help small business, they help us. It's a two-way street.'"
All but about two businesses in Montana are small ones, Tester said, so he's more interested in what benefits them. "I want to talk about small businesses," he said. "But make no mistake about it, the economy is dependent on both to be successful."
The corporate titans pushed Senate Democrats to extend tax credits that are a high priority, several senators said, and also called for Democratic help with expanding trade -- what Tester called "open trade, but fair trade."
"These are private meetings that we have so I'm not going to get into all the details," said Stabenow, "but they were just making the point that there's a link between large and small businesses. And I certainly see that in Michigan, because you've got large manufacturers and then you have thousands of suppliers that are small businesses."
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was particularly tough on the CEOs, several people in the room said, but Sanders declined to comment, saying the meeting was private.
At one point, Democrats in the room reached out to the corporate heads for help finishing health care reform and were met with silence, several people said.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) quipped that he bought the argument that American corporations are good job-creators -- with one caveat: "Yeah, in China."