By Alexander Bolton - 02/04/14 06:00 AM EST
Normally the bitterest of enemies, labor unions and the Tea Party are reaching out to each other to defeat President Obama’s trade agenda.
The groups are at separate poles when it comes to taxes, ObamaCare and who should be the next president, but they agree that making it easier for the administration to negotiate and win congressional approval of trade deals is a bad idea.
Obama dismayed union allies last week when he called for Congress to pass trade promotion authority legislation in his State of the Union address.
The authority, which was last given to former President George W. Bush, would prevent Congress from amending trade deals in exchange for the administration achieving specific negotiating objectives. It also would impose time limits on congressional consideration of trade agreements.
The authority is thought to make it much easier to negotiate trade deals, because foreign partners have more certainty that the deals will become U.S. law.
The AFL-CIO, Tea Party Nation and other groups privately acknowledged working together to stop a trade promotion authority law. Labor officials and Tea Party activists are working behind the scenes to build a coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans to block Obama’s priority.
“There are conversations and mutual awareness,” a labor official who lobbies Congress said. The official requested anonymity because his union’s leadership had not granted permission to publicly discuss outreach to Tea Party groups.
A recent poll by Hart Research Associates, a Democratic firm, and Chesapeake Beach Consulting, a GOP firm, shows conservative Republicans are adamantly opposed to giving Obama more authority to negotiate trade deals.
The national survey of 816 registered voters conducted in mid-January showed 74 percent of conservative Republicans would be less likely to vote for a member of Congress who supported giving Obama authority on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal being negotiated with a number of Latin American and Asian countries, including Vietnam.
The administration is also negotiating a trade deal with the European Union.
Phillips said he has talked with the AFL-CIO about putting together a strategy for defeating the trade bill as well as with liberal groups such as Public Citizen. He said he has met with representatives of another union that wants to keep the conversation secret.
“We welcome all those who would work against this version of fast track,” said Celeste Drake, a trade policy specialist at the AFL-CIO.
She said fast-track authority has paved the way for deals that have created a large trade imbalance and allowed companies to take advantage of weak labor and environmental protections in foreign countries, bypassing domestic manufacturers.
Drake also argued previous trade deals did not adequately restrict currency manipulation in countries such as China.
Labor unions and Tea Party groups agree that giving the administration “fast-track” authority is a bad idea, but they tend to emphasize different arguments to their members.
Unions such as the AFL-CIO argue trade deals approved with little congressional oversight will pump up corporate profits while pushing down workers’ wages. Tea Party groups say it will give Obama, whom they say cannot be trusted, too much authority.
“The last thing the Congress needs to do is to cede more power that constitutionally belongs to the legislative branch to President Obama,” said Todd Cefaratti, president and founder of TheTeaParty.net.
Labor representatives are meeting with Tea Party lawmakers to build their coalition.
Tom Flynn, the political and legislative director of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, said, “we have had conversations with people that are likely considered Tea Party members of Congress with a unified goal to make sure fast track is defeated.”
Flynn acknowledged the reaction from conservative lawmakers is sometimes mixed, given their history of usually fighting on the opposite side as labor groups.
“We have commonality on this issue, but there are many issues we don’t agree on, so there’s probably a little skepticism on both sides of it,” he said.
Not all Tea Party groups opposed giving Obama fast-track authority. The Tea Party Express, the nation’s largest Tea Party political action committee, has praised Obama for his trade stance.
“The president took a promising position during his State of the Union address when he asked for the authority to push through international trade agreements,” said Sal Russo, chief strategist of the Tea Party Express. “This is one of the few policies from this administration that would actually spur economic growth, yet it is the first thing the Democrats in the Senate propose killing.”
Jenny Beth Martin, the president and co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said her group has yet to take a position on the issue. Tea Party Patriots recently gave information about the trade bill to its local coordinators.
“Our coordinators across the country are by and large opposed to it but we haven’t made it one of the main things we’ve gotten involved in,” she said.
Obama’s efforts to win the authority face significant hurdles, including opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who became an unlikely hero among Tea Party conservatives last week when he urged fast-track supporters to hit the pause button.
“God bless Harry Reid! I never thought I’d say that,” said Phillips, the Tea Party Nation president.