* Group seeks to slow spending on Medicare, Social Security
* Forecasts a somewhat lackluster 2013 with modest growth
* Chamber president says upbeat about immigration reform
By Richard Cowan and David Morgan
WASHINGTON, Jan 10 The U.S. Chamber of Commerce
on Thursday declared federal deficit reduction its top goal for
2013 and questioned whether Washington politicians were brave
enough to take the steps necessary to rein in a fast-growing
"Do we have leaders with the courage to put the country
first - ahead of their own careers, politics, ideologies and
egos?" asked Thomas Donohue, president of the country's largest
Donohue, in the chamber's 2013 "state of American business"
address, said the upcoming budget fights in Congress should be
addressed mainly by "controlling deficit spending through common
sense entitlement reform."
Such reforms, which have long been discussed by Democratic
President Barack Obama and members of Congress, would slow
government spending on Social Security retirement benefits and
the Medicare program for the elderly and disabled.
Besides controlling a national debt that now stands at $16.4
trillion, the chamber wants to make progress during 2013 on some
These include increasing U.S. energy production, expanding
the export of American products abroad and easing the burden of
federal regulations that the business group says handcuff
Donohue said that while the U.S. economy continues to slowly
improve, the chamber is forecasting a somewhat lackluster 2013
that sees growth in the range of 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent
during the first half of the year, "gradually accelerating to
2.5 percent by the end of the year."
A divided Congress and Obama face deadlines of mid-February
to early March for increasing the rapidly depleting Treasury
Department borrowing limit and deciding the fate of deep,
across-the-board spending cuts that would be split evenly
between domestic and military programs.
At the end of March, temporary funding runs out for most
government programs, raising the possibility of agency
Since the beginning of 2011, Republicans in Congress and
Obama have battled over tax and spending policies, as they
struggled to craft a "grand compromise" that would save at least
$4 trillion over 10 years.
They have only managed to enact around $2 trillion in
Donohue said the looming deadlines "will mean more
uncertainty for our economy, our businesses and for financial
markets at home and abroad."
Obama is demanding a "balanced" approach to
deficit-reduction that uses a mix of spending cuts and revenue
increases to get the U.S. fiscal house in order. This comes on
the heels of Obama winning on New Year's Day an income tax rate
increase for upper-level earners following budget battles in
2011 that focused squarely on spending cuts.
Republicans argue that the next round of deficit reduction
must be achieved purely through spending cuts aimed mostly at
IMMIGRATION REFORM OPTIMISM
During his speech and at a subsequent press conference,
Donohue was upbeat about prospects for immigration reform,
saying that he has been collaborating with Richard Trumka,
president of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor
organization, as well as with state governors and industry
"I feel positive about it and look forward to this, this
year," Donohue told reporters.
AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser told Reuters that the labor
group was "working with the Chamber of Commerce to make sure
that we develop an actual working immigration process in this
country that includes a clear roadmap to citizenship for the 11
million (who are) undocumented."
Donohue said immigration reform must secure U.S. borders,
improve guest worker programs and "provide a path out of the
shadows" for undocumented immigrants - provided they meet
Among the conditions that have been discussed are
establishing firm waiting periods for citizenship for those here
illegally, imposing fines and possibly requiring back taxes to
Donohue touched on other chamber priorities for 2013:
- "Modest adjustments" to Medicare are needed "to turn down
the growth on the curve of cost increases," he said. Without
providing specifics, he mentioned changing patient co-payments,
altering the "structure" of benefit programs and finding
"refinements in how the healthcare is delivered."
- It is time to "quit fooling around" and raise federal
gasoline taxes to help fund infrastructure investments, he said.
The federal highway fund is low on revenue, in part because of a
slow economy and in part because more fuel-efficient vehicles
cut gasoline consumption.
- He said the chamber will not shy away from aggressive
legal action to try to stop Obama administration regulations it
opposes including the Dodd-Frank financial industry reforms. The
chamber will seek "fixes to those areas of Dodd-Frank that
Congress and the regulators simply got wrong." He also put the
administration on notice that the National Chamber Litigation
Center will "significantly expand ... in order to deal with