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Will tea party allies in Congress balk at international trade pacts?

As Obama presses for on a free-trade deal with Korea, where does the tea party stand? Polls say tea partyers do not favor trade pacts, but for many of their allies in Congress, it's a new issue.

By Staff writer / November 10, 2010

Rep.-elect Bobby Schilling (R.) talks with AP in Moline, Ill. on Nov. 4. Schilling was the tea party candidate in his race and was for free trade. Rep. Phil Hare (D) lost the race and was against trade agreements that he believes hurt workers.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

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Washington

Normally, a big Republican majority in Congress would bode well for free-trade pacts. Republicans, more than labor-union-backed Democrats, have typically been the promoters of international trade.

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But these are not normal times. The new Republican majority, set to take office in January, was elected on a wave of populist tea party energy. Several dozen new members either come from the movement or were strongly supported by it. Some, in particular, represent parts of the country hit hard by the recession and struggling with a loss of manufacturing jobs.

So as President Obama seeks to nail down fixes to the long-stalled US-Korea Free Trade Agreement during his visit to Seoul, the question is, will the tea party influence in Congress help or hurt Mr. Obama’s efforts to seal the deal on trade? Trade agreements require approval by both houses of Congress.

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A new Pew Research Center poll contains some warning signs from rank-and-file Americans for Obama and the newly elected Republican majority in Congress.

“Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the tea party have a particularly negative view of the impact of free trade agreements,” Pew reports.

Only 24 percent say that pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been good for the United States, the survey found. In contrast, among Republicans who disagree with the tea party or have no opinion of it, 42 percent say trade agreements have been good for the US.

“It’s a big question mark, which way the tea party members will lean when they vote on trade,” says Daniel Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. “Most of them have never had to think about let alone vote on a trade issue before.”

In the Senate, some of the new members have already staked out strong positions in favor of free trade agreements. Though not a tea partyer, Sen.-elect Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, former US trade representative under President George W. Bush, is certainly on board. So is the tea party-backed Sen.-elect Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, former head of the pro-free-trade Club for Growth.

On his campaign website, tea party-backed Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R) of Florida explicitly backed free trade: “We should adopt the free trade agreements that have already been negotiated with Colombia, Panama, South Korea, and other nations around the world. We should also insist that other countries reduce their own barriers to trade so that American goods can find new markets.”

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