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.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
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.

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.

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.”

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.

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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