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Why business leaders are silent on the debt ceiling

January 16, 2013: 7:59 AM ET

To date, the most potent voices for corporate interests in Washington have only offered equivocations.

By Tory Newmyer

capitol-darkFORTUNE -- In the standoff over the debt ceiling, President Obama and Congressional Republicans continue to inhabit parallel realities. Obama insists he won't negotiate for new borrowing authority, while the GOP demands a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar lawmakers raise the limit.

At some point, these realities will converge: Either Obama blinks and starts negotiating, or Republicans back away from their debt-default brinkmanship and decide to stage the next skirmish over federal spending on different terrain. So far, neither side is showing any indication of budging. And if recent history is any indication, the reckoning will come perilously close to the time in the next month or so when the Treasury Department will have exhausted the emergency maneuvers it is now employing and must instead choose which federal obligations it meets -- interest payments to our creditors, Social Security benefits, active-duty military pay, and so on -- and which it stiffs.

So this would seem like a prime moment for business leaders, with among the highest stakes in the health of the economic recovery, to help break the impasse presaging yet another manufactured Washington crisis by declaring a hostage negotiation over the debt limit unacceptable.

Or not.

MORE: Fiscal cliff may have given the economy a lift

To date, the most potent voices for corporate interests in Washington have only offered equivocations. Take Tom Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce -- and as such, arguably the nation's top business lobbyist. Last Thursday, he appeared to endorse using the debt ceiling as leverage to secure new deficit cuts:

"My own view, our view, is that we should not default on our debt, but we should recognize if we don't deal with our spending, if we don't do a big deal, the debt issue is going to become a huge burden for us from the people who provide the debt," he told reporters at the group's annual State of American Business event. "We do believe we're going to have to create a certain amount of -- I don't want to call it tension -- but focus that we've got to do this because we're running out of time."

The next day, he offered Bloomberg News a more qualified version, affirming the deficit cutting imperative but adding that "we shouldn't use -- we shouldn't have to use the debt ceiling or sequestration or other issues to do it."

A similarly two-handed formulation comes from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, whose spokesman says, "We believe that our country should not default under any circumstances. While we believe the Administration and Congress need to come to an agreement on a long-term fiscal solution, how they do that, and avoid a default, is the job of the Administration and Congress."

And the Financial Services Roundtable likewise splits the difference: "It is important to honor existing obligations and simultaneously reduce spending to put the country on stronger financial footing."

MORE: Sorry, middle class. The VAT may be inevitable.

The most outspoken of the business group leaders in Washington has been John Engler, the former Republican governor of Michigan who now heads the Business Roundtable, representing CEOs. Engler has advocated raising the debt ceiling high enough to cover spending for the next five years. On Friday, he appeared on C-SPAN and described the debt limit as a "clumsy instrument. The country's not going to not pay its bills."

But there is no indication of a broader will among business leaders to explain the stakes to Congressional Republicans. There are likely a couple factors at work. For one, many of these industries invested heavily in Republican candidates and would be loath to challenge their negotiating posture now. The financial sector, for example, significantly tipped its giving toward Republicans for the first time in recent history, contributing about twice as much to the GOP during the 2012 election cycle, where it had roughly split donations before, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. The Financial Services Roundtable is now led by Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor of Minnesota, who, during the last debt ceiling stalemate in the summer of 2011, was a presidential candidate trying to win support among Iowa conservatives by calling on Congressional Republicans to stand firm in opposing a debt ceiling hike. "It's gut-check time for Republicans," Pawlenty said at the time. "I wish they wouldn't raise the debt ceiling, but if they do, they have to get something meaningful and significant for it."

Plus, while the 2011 showdown -- and the subsequent downgrading of U.S. debt by Standard & Poor's -- was a galvanizing event for many CEOs, they channeled that concern into an organized effort to address the deficit itself. The Fix the Debt campaign raised $43 million to finance a push for a deficit grand bargain during the fiscal cliff talks. Those negotiations petered out in a package that did little to answer our long-term spending problem, with the result that many of the corporate chiefs involved must now be conflicted. Flirt with another debt ceiling crisis now to secure the campaign's long-range goals? Or demand it be taken off the table and hope other looming fiscal deadlines -- a possible government shutdown and the delayed implementation of the sequester cuts -- will finally force action?

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"Everyone's going to have their own opinion on this, including many of the people who are affiliated with us," says Marc Goldwein, policy director for Fix the Debt. The campaign itself, he says, will remain agnostic.

One lobbyist who works with Fortune 500 companies offered another explanation: The Fix the Debt crowd, he says, lost a lot of credibility with policymakers in both parties during the fiscal cliff fight by not contributing any sacrifice toward a big deal. "They're offering pain for everyone but themselves," he said, with the result that Congressional leaders are now leery. "Once they pop their heads up, they're in the crosshairs to get targeted for their subsidies to be taken away, or their taxes to go up. So none of them are saying anything."

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