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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.

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One new tea party senator who may bring a mixed view of international trade to Congress is Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky. On his campaign website, under the heading “Sovereignty,” he says that the US is “often subservient to foreign bodies,” including the WTO, a view that echoes the position of his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas.

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Further down, though, Senator-elect Paul’s site says that he “proposes that America can engage the world in free trade, develop lucrative commercial relationships with other nations, and defend its national interests without funding or joining international organizations.”

Among the new House members elected with tea party support, the picture is murkier.

One race where international trade did come up was in Illinois’s 17th Congressional District, where Rep. Phil Hare (D) argued against trade agreements that he believes hurt workers, such as those with Colombia and Peru. He was defeated by tea partyer Bobby Schilling (R), who just as staunchly supported free trade. Representative-elect Schilling’s district is home to John Deere manufacturing; Caterpillar is nearby. He argued that free trade agreements like the one in the works with South Korea are crucial to expanding into markets overseas, and that even when a company opens up operations abroad, jobs are still created at headquarters.

Plenty of tea party candidates won in Rust Belt districts, though few races seemed to have the focus on trade that Illinois 17 did. The truth about where tea partyers come down on trade may well be a mix. Dave Johnson, a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, says during the campaign he covered town halls on reviving American manufacturing in Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and while opposition to free trade was widespread and bipartisan, the tea partyers expressed particular concern for American sovereignty.

“It was expressed as a Ross Perot kind of loathing of NAFTA,” Mr. Johnson says, referring to the populist presidential candidate of the ‘90s who railed against the loss of American jobs abroad.

Plenty of people have observed an overlap between the Perot movement and the tea party. But perhaps a difference is that today, there’s less skepticism toward trade agreements with individual countries, as opposed to involvement with supranational bodies like the WTO.

“Most of the people associated as leaders of the tea party – whether it’s Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Jim DeMint, or Marco Rubio – have all spoken positively about free trade,” says Bryan Riley of the Heritage Foundation. “For the grassroots, I don’t think it’s a big surprise that a lot of Americans who identify with the tea party are skeptical of government institutions. So whether it’s the UN or Fannie Mae or the WTO, the gut instinct is likely to be, I’m not so sure about that.”

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