Tea Party Takes Aim at Obama-Republican Deal on Trade PolicyCarter Dougherty
The Tea Party is aiming to stop one of the few initiatives President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress say they both want in the coming year: more free trade.
The effort, which has drawn interest from Democratic allies in U.S. labor unions, is aimed at killing legislation that would let the president submit trade deals for an up-or-down vote, called fast-track authority.
Business lobbyists, in turn, are seeking the allegiance of freshly elected lawmakers to head off the threat to Obama’s trade agenda from Republicans skeptical of his powers.
“Anti-trade sentiments are more ascendant in the Republican party than they might have been 20 years ago,” Obama said yesterday at a meeting with the Business Roundtable, which represents chief executive officers from U.S. companies, including Dupont Co. and Visa Inc.
Tea Party-endorsed lawmakers have vexed the Republican leadership since they emerged as a faction after 2010 congressional elections. They have stopped Speaker John Boehner from making deals with Obama on deficit reduction and torpedoed chances for broad immigration legislation in 2013.
Fast-track powers would help Obama complete agreements, such as a 12-nation free-trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is the commercial element of his foreign policy’s “pivot to Asia.” Without the authority, other governments won’t open their markets to agricultural products, services and other American exports for fear that Congress will change the terms of the deal.
Republican Representatives Duncan Hunter of California, David McKinley of West Virginia and David Joyce of Ohio yesterday gave Boehner a letter signed by 19 party members urging against a vote on a fast-track bill in this Congress. And they signaled they are unwilling to ever vote for it.
“The American people have spoken loud and clear: they want a new direction for our country,” they wrote. “The habitual abuses of power by this president have eroded the faith of the American people, who no longer trust his judgment or leadership.”
Obama, in his remarks, said that trade policy has split Democrats, with labor unions and environmental groups opposing new deals, and the public is uneasy with perceptions that trade deals pinch their pocketbooks.
“We’re not going to get anything done in this town until we can describe to the average American worker how this is improving their wages,” Obama said.
The prospect of a determined group of Republicans opposing fast track has led labor unions, longtime critics of free-trade policies, to explore whether an alliance with conservatives can be formed to block House action, said Michael Dolan, a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters. It has retained a Republican lobbying firm, The Keelen Group, to help rally like-minded Republicans.
“We can count -– we know we need Republican votes to win this fight,” Dolan said in an e-mail. “That’s why we are watching the growing ‘trade patriot’ grassroots coalitions on the right.”
Last year, Dolan joined the board of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, which is seeking to build what he called trans-partisan coalitions against traditional free trade policies. The group has a mix of labor, farmer and small-business members.
The Business Roundtable is pressing Obama to get behind passage of fast track as soon as possible. AT&T Inc. CEO Randall Stephenson, the group’s chairman, said bipartisan harmony on the trade should make passage possible.
“If there were ever anything where there seems to be an alignment of objectives between the administration and the Congress, this seems to be it,” Stephenson told reporters yesterday in advance of the meeting.
Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee that reviews trade deals, urged Obama to push Democrats to back trade promotion authority.
“If past experience has taught us anything it’s that we need presidential leadership to get TPA over the finish line,” Hatch said in a statement. “The president’s influence, particularly among members of his own party, will be a vital component to congressional efforts.”
While the Senate has generally backed free-trade deals, getting House support has been a challenge since President Bill Clinton won passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. Renewing fast-track authority has been contentious since it expired in the mid-1990s. The Republican-led House rejected it in 1998 with substantial Democratic opposition and approved it narrowly in 2002.
As Democrats have grown more skeptical of free-trade deals, citing the potential loss of U.S. jobs, fewer House members have been willing to back them. House Republican leaders, in control for most of the past 20 years, have sought to rally more of their members to get behind them.
“The new variable here is how the Republican freshman will vote on this, and whether they are pro-trade,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a lobby group that represents exporters such as Boeing Co. of Chicago and Exxon Mobil Corp. of Irving, Texas.
Curtis Ellis, communications director for the American Jobs Alliance, a nonprofit group that opposes free-trade deals, said the 2014 election that added about 12 seats to the Republicans’ House majority also expanded the pool of members who can be counted on to oppose fast track. The House Tea Party Caucus had 48 members at the beginning of 2013, according to its website.
“The number of Republicans who will vote no has definitely increased,” Ellis said.
Groups backing the Tea Party’s goals have sought to reframe the debate over trade negotiating authority, and have already lobbied some House members. Ellis sums up the effort in a word: “Obamatrade.”
Echoing the well-used -- and in Republican eyes, pejorative -- Obamacare moniker for the 2010 health law, Curtis says many Republicans have no interest in giving trade promotion powers because it strengthens the president’s hand and bars Congress from amending the agreements it must approve.
“Trade promotion authority doesn’t promote trade -- it promotes the authority of the president to completely bypass Congress,” Ellis said. “Congress has to pass it to find out what’s in these trade agreements.”
Bryan Riley, a trade policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a research center in Washington that has provided ideas for the Tea Party caucus, countered that the roots of the movement are in free trade. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was a protest aimed at British taxation of colonial commerce.
“The Tea Party started back then as opposition to duties, to tariffs,” Riley said in an interview. “We try to make this point to Tea Party-influenced members.”
Prominent Republicans have lobbied some House members to say a law on negotiating authority constrains the president to do only the bidding of Congress, said Robert Zoellick, a U.S. trade representative under George W. Bush.
“Newer Republicans are willing to support trade deals and TPA, but they want the executive’s negotiations to be guided by congressional goals, procedures, consultations and implementing legislation,” Zoellick, who is also chairman of international advisory board of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., said in an e-mail. “No blank checks.”
John Murphy, senior vice president for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said: “It is really easy to exaggerate the backlash against trade from the far right.” The wave of Tea Party-backed candidates elected in 2010 mostly voted for the deals with Korea, Colombia and Panama in 2011, and newly elected Republicans seem open to becoming free-traders.
“Trade doesn’t come up a lot in campaigns, but what we know about this incoming class is positive,” Murphy said.