Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. / Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pledged Wednesday to ramp up the group's lobbying on immigration legislation and to play a bigger role in electing pro-business candidates in November's midterm congressional elections.
The nation's largest business-lobbying group "will pull out the stops" to encourage Congress to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, chamber president Tom Donohue said during his annual "State of American Business" speech.
Donohue said the group is prepared to spend heavily to ensure lawmakers pass pro-business measures in an election year when it's often hard to enact any laws, much less controversial bills such as immigration.
"We hope to turn that assumption on its ear by turning the upcoming elections into a motivator for change," Donohue said. "It's based on a simply theory: If you can't make them see the light, then as least make them feel some heat."
Rob Engstrom, who oversees the chamber's political operations, would not disclose the group's budget but said the chamber planned to exceed what it spent on House and Senate races in 2012.
The chamber's move challenges Tea Party-aligned Republicans who incensed business leaders after those lawmakers successfully pushed a partial federal government shutdown last October in effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Donohue said the business group is looking at "half a dozen" House and Senate races involving primaries or open seats to aid candidates who agree with the chamber's positions on the economy, trade, immigration and other issues.
He said he doesn't disagree with Tea Party principles, such as controlling federal spending. But, he said, "people who announce 'I'm going for the House or Senate, and my idea is to burn down the town' ‚?¶we are not going to be interested in them."
The Senate passed a comprehensive rewrite of immigration laws in June, but no measure has passed the GOP-controlled House, where some Republicans oppose the Senate deal allowing the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship.
House Speaker John Boehner is expected to release a blueprint in the coming weeks that outlines the key principles of an immigration overhaul that the House could consider. Boehner also recently hired Rebecca Tallent, a former aide to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has long supported changes to immigration law - raising hopes among advocates that he is willing to move forward.
Donohue said he's "encouraged" by recent developments in the House.
Contributing: Alan Gomez
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