When it came to voting on a bill to impose automatic sanctions against countries guilty of religious persecution, House Republicans had to choose between political allies.
The business and Christian conservative coalitions that helped Republicans reclaim control of the House in 1994 after a 40-year absence were on opposite sides of the religious persecution bill.Instead of working together, as they had on the balanced budget and other conservative issues, they fought.
The pro-sanctions forces, led by the religious right, wound up winning on the House floor Thursday, 375-41, at the expense of the business community.
The vast majority of Republicans voting on the bill - 206 of 220 - sided with the religious groups. The battle next moves to the Senate, expected to take up similar legislation later this year.
The bill would create a State Department office to monitor and report on religious persecution and authorize sanctions against countries guilty of a pattern of abuses. The White House voiced support for religious tolerance but said the bill would hinder the president's ability to conduct foreign policy.
Both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Christian Coalition had told lawmakers that their votes on the issue might be a part of each group's annual voting ratings. The Christian Coalition hands out up to 10 million voting scorecards before Election Day.
At the same time, business political action committees are generous campaign contributors to GOP incumbents. Seven members of the business coalition opposing the bill were among the 25 most generous corporate political action committee contributors during the last election, handing out $5 million to congressional candidates.
"This kind of an issue can have a preeminent factor in your decision-making," said Bruce Josten, the Chamber of Commerce's executive vice president for government affairs. "Companies are going to stop, pause and think about this. Why would you continue to throw money at someone who's continuing to vote against your corporate interests?"
Besides face-to-face meetings with lawmakers, Josten made his organization's position known during the weekly meetings that House Republican Conference chairman John Boehner of Ohio has with outside groups that support the GOP agenda.
The head of the Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donahue, sent letters reiterating the group's position. Executives of corporations that are members of the chamber called local lawmakers back home asking them to oppose the legislation.
The chamber was part of a larger coalition of business organizations, USA Engage, run by The Wexler Group, a lobbying firm. Chairwoman Anne Wexler was an aide to then-President Jimmy Carter. President Bob Walker is a Pennsylvania Republican and former House member who was close to House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
USA Engage launched its own public relations and lobbying effort, including a series of letters to lawmakers and press conferences on Capitol Hill.