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Newsflash: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, bastion of Big Business and free enterprise, drops its staunch opposition to climate change legislation and embraces a carbon tax.

It is, of course, untrue.

But for a brief interlude last month, that's exactly what CNBC, Reuters, The New York Times and other major media organizations were breathlessly reporting.

It was all a hoax perpetrated by the activist satirical group the Yes Men. The group issued a phony press release, gathered reporters at the National Press Club in Washington and then dropped the bombshell: "We at the chamber have tried to keep climate science from interfering with business," a phony spokesman, later identified as Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum, told the assemblage. "But without a stable climate, there will be no business."

It all ended in a farce moments later when an angry - and real - chamber official, tipped off to the stunt, walked in on the skit and declared that it was all a fraud.

It was a low moment in a lousy year for the largest U.S. business organization. The chamber now finds itself at odds with U.S. President Barack Obama and the Democratic-held Congress on virtually every major issue - from climate change and health care to overhauling regulation of Wall Street and economic stimulus.

Everywhere the chamber looks, free enterprise is under assault.

And the chamber is fighting back, spending millions on television ads and lobbying to block Mr. Obama's agenda.

In many respects, the venerable Chamber of Commerce is the face of American business. Its imposing limestone headquarters, with its three-story Corinthian columns, occupies one of the choicest pieces of real estate in Washington, D.C. - directly across Lafayette Park from the White House and a stone's throw from the lobbyists on K Street.

Its three million members, including those who belong via their local chambers of commerce, are the U.S. establishment. They are the local bank manager, the stock broker, the department store owner, the factory boss and the landlord.

They don't like taxes or regulation. They are overwhelmingly Republican. (The chamber routinely backs GOP candidates at election time).

And they don't like the way Mr. Obama is running the country.

The animosity is apparently mutual. More than just a protagonist, the chamber has become a target of the White House.

In recent months, the White House has been actively working to marginalize the chamber, which it sees as a political enemy, as much as policy foe.

Just as George W. Bush liked to speak directly to workers, circumventing organized labour, Mr. Obama is reaching out directly to key chief executives. While shunning the likes of chamber president Thomas Donohue, Mr. Obama has held private chats with the CEOs of IBM, Wal-Mart, Time Warner, Kraft, Eastman Kodak and Coca-Cola.

The White House has openly questioned whether the chamber really represents the business community, as it once did.

"They're very good at this, because that's how business has been done in Washington for a very long time," Mr. Obama said last month of the chamber's efforts to block the creation of a consumer financial regulator. "In fact, over the last 10 years, the chamber alone has spent nearly a half a billion dollars on lobbying - half a billion dollars."

Mr. Obama's divide and conquer strategy has produced some casualties. Under pressure from environmental groups, a handful of large member companies have quit the group this year over its climate change stance, including Apple, PG&E, PNM Resources and Exelon.

A number of other members are disgruntled, but for now are sticking with the chamber because of its lobbying efforts in other areas, such as free trade. Nike resigned from the chamber's board, Duke Energy has slashed contributions and Siemens has demanded to be consulted about future climate change ads.

The chamber is unapologetic and defiant. And it isn't going to be quieted because its Washington neighbour, Mr. Obama, is upset.

"Let's be clear, we haven't raised up the Cain. It came from the other side of the street," Bruce Josten, the chamber's top lobbyist, told Fox News Sunday. "We're not going to take the bait and engage in a name-calling campaign of invectives back and forth. We're going to stay focused."

The war of words isn't just about climate change, Wall Street regulation or health care reform - all of which are facing stiff resistance in Congress.

It's also about who will call the shots after next year's mid-term Congressional elections, and beyond that, 2012, when Mr. Obama seeks a second term.

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

 

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