Obama, Chamber mending fences after deep rift

WASHINGTON — Since taking office nearly two years ago, President Obama frequently has clashed with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major business group that has plowed millions of dollars into opposing his plans to overhaul the health care and impose new regulations on Wall Street.

Obama and his aides have criticized the group publicly. But the administration's campaign to neutralize the group went further, according to new details about the dispute.

Over the past year the White House has hosted meetings with business leaders to discuss policy, and in some of those sessions asked that they persuade the Chamber to cancel TV ads aimed at defeating Obama's health care plan, said a business lobbyist familiar with the matter.

Illustrating the depth of the dispute, the White House also asked corporate executives to drop their membership in the Chamber, the lobbyist said. Last fall, the Chamber received reports that the White House — including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett — had spoken to some executives about resigning from the Chamber, the business lobbyist said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid becoming personally entangled in the conflict. A second source said there had been discussions at the Chamber regarding the White House urging resignations.

Through a spokeswoman, Jarrett said Thursday that she did not ask any companies to leave the Chamber. Defections from the Chamber carry the potential to damage the institution in two ways: Cutting off dues money and stirring up bad publicity.

Following the midterm elections there have been signs of a thaw. Obama is considering a speech to the group's members as early as next month and the Chamber is pledging not to push for his defeat in the 2012 election.

But relations were under intense strains last year. Several companies quit the Chamber during that time period, citing differences with the organization over the issue of climate change. They included electric utilities PNM and Exelon, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and Apple. Nike remained in the fold but stepped down from the Chamber's board of directors.

In interviews, officials with Exelon, PG&E and PNM said they were not asked by the White House to leave the Chamber.

Nike declined comment. An Apple spokeswoman said the company would not comment on whether the White House asked it to leave the Chamber.