WASHINGTON -- The relationship between the Obama White House and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has always been too complicated to define as simply acrimonious.
The two parties have collaborated on some major items, notably the bank bailout and the stimulus package. And while the head-butting has been more noticeable and severe -- from Valerie Jarrett calling the business lobby's "free enterprise" campaign "regrettable" to the Chamber spending millions of dollars attacking Democrats in the 2010 cycle -- it's always been coupled with formal efforts at rapprochement.
"People in this administration talk to [Chamber CEO Tom Donohue]," White House senior adviser David Axelrod told the Huffington Post in an interview last week. "People in the administration talk to other members of the board. We have good relations with some members; some are hostile. But what we need to do is pursue a pro-growth agenda. We may differ on some issues and they will make their political decisions in the future. But we are going to work individually with businesses wherever we can to help grow jobs and prosperity."
On Wednesday, the intricacies and oddities of the relationship were on full display. For the second time in as many weeks, a member of the Obama cabinet met with Chamber officials. It was not to discuss the sharp elbows thrown during the campaign, when the White House, in no uncertain terms, accused the Chamber of subverting the democratic process by refusing to reveal its donors. Rather, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner met with the group's board of directors to "discuss the state of the economy, jobs, and administration priorities 'for supporting the competitiveness of American businesses'."
At the same time, the Chamber was doing a bit of diplomatic outreach and relationship repair of its own. In a speech Wednesday morning, Donohue declared a willingness to recommit himself to collaborative dialogue with the White House.
"Since the elections, we've been asked whether the Chamber will be able to work with the administration and those in Congress who criticized us. The answer is, of course we can. It's already happening," he said. " This is not personal with us. It's about representing our members and advancing ideas that we think are essential to expand our economy, compete in the world, and create American jobs. We're prepared to join with President Obama, his administration, and both parties in Congress whenever we can to achieve these goals."
And yet, the timing of the Geithner meeting and the Donohue speech could have been better. On the same morning that the two parties began mending to the campaign wounds, Bloomberg News reported that the Chamber received and spent far more money than previously reported in an effort to defeat the president's signature piece of legislation: health care reform. In all, the lobby spent $86.2 million for advertisements, polling and grass roots events to drum up opposition to the bill, Bloomberg reported -- an astonishing sum that nearly derailed the legislation's passage.
The Obama administration did not immediately return a request for comment on the new report or for more information about the Geithner meeting. But officials, in private, could do little more than shrug their shoulders.
For every step forward, it seems, there is one back. As Axelrod explained last week: "We are going to work with American businesses to promote jobs and growth. And we hope to build on those relationships. But if an organization has a political agenda beyond the promotion of growth, then there is nothing we can do about that."
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