By Molly K. Hooper - 09/11/11 02:30 AM EDT
House Republican leaders face a tough task of finding enough votes to pass the three long-stalled free trade agreements.
Organized labor and some Tea-Party lawmakers are poised to rally against the pacts, which President Obama is expected to send to Congress this fall.
The trio of trade deals is a rare area of agreement between Obama and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. Many on the left have been disappointed with Obama’s trade agenda, especially after he vowed on the presidential campaign trail to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
That promise has been unfulfilled, and union groups and Democrats are gearing up for a major battle over trade, most notably on Colombia.
Meanwhile, a fair amount of House GOP lawmakers from the Midwest, Northeast and southern regions are not sold yet – some of them from the historic class of 2010.
In March, more than 60 freshmen GOP lawmakers sent a letter to Obama advocating the speedy consideration of the free trade deals.
But nearly 20 House GOP freshmen refrained from signing it, including Reps. Martha Roby (Ala.), Mo Brooks (Ala.), Jeff Landry (La.) Chip Cravaack (Minn.), Steven Palazzo (Miss.), Frank Guinta (N.H.), Renee Elmers (N.C.), Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Tom Marino (Pa.), Lou Barletta (Pa.), Jeff Duncan (S.C.), Trey Gowdy (S.C.), Mick Mulvaney (S.C.), Stephen Fincher (Tenn.), Robert Hurt (Va.), Morgan Griffith (Va.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.) and David McKinley (W.Va.).
When contacted by The Hill on their positions on the trade deals, the collective consensus was “undecided.”
Griffin said, “I am awaiting the final versions of the trade agreements before making my decisions because small changes in the language can make a significant difference.”
Brooks said he, too, is waiting for the final versions of the deals, adding that “free trade must be fair trade.” That is a sentiment expressed by Tea Party activists, many of whom oppose the agreements.
There are also likely no votes beyond the Republican freshman class, such as Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.).
Moving trade deals through the House has been a tough sell in recent decades. Clearing NAFTA in the Clinton administration was extremely controversial, as was the Central American Free Trade Agreement during George W. Bush’s administration. By contrast, clearing trade deals through the Senate is not as challenging.
In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last September, showed that 69 percent of Americans thought free trade agreements cost U.S. jobs; 61 percent of self-identified Tea Party followers opposed the free trade agreements.
Historically trade deals have divided parties along regional lines, but these deals, South Korea in particular, could cause problems for more Republicans, according to a source well-connected with the lobbying effort to defeat the trade deals.
“The textile industry is strongly against [the South Korean deal]…There are a bunch of Republicans who typically vote for trade agreements, who will be voting against this agreement – some are not freshmen, some are senior members,” the source said.
And anti-trade interest groups are poised to pounce on then-GOP candidates who ran against “more NAFTAs,” but who may fold to leadership pressure to vote for the free trade deals.
Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch features a study of the success of candidates who ran on fair trade and offshore jobs on its website, which includes direct links to all of the candidate advertisements that ran on the issue in 2010.
A source opposed to the deals noted that mock campaign ads have already been made attacking freshmen who said they wouldn’t support the free trade deals – if those individuals ultimately support them.
Democratic critics of the deals say lobbying vulnerable Republicans to vote against them has caused them some heartburn. They explain that winning back the House will be easier if the vulnerable GOP members vote yes.
Political analysts believe trade will be a campaign issue, and it could set up a unique situation where congressional Democrats run campaign ads against Republicans who supported the Obama-endorsed deals.
A well-connected House GOP aide told The Hill, “the president’s got to be looking to [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] for some help. They are going to need Democratic support.”
Pelosi last month indicated on MSNBC that the president is on his own, saying, “the White House may support it, but the Congress may have a different view.”
Over the past few days, House and Senate GOP leaders have implored President Obama to send the deals to Congress as soon as possible – an indication of their confidence that the votes are in place to pass the long-stalled measures.
The powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been one of the most outspoken proponents of passing the three free trade agreements.
Sources familiar with the effort aimed at attracting backing for the pacts are confident that most Republicans will unite behind them. They acknowledge that some southern lawmakers and some from the Rust Belt will be tough sells.
At a press conference on Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (Utah) said that nearly all Republicans support the deals.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote an op-ed on Tuesday, followed by a press conference with fellow GOP senators in support of the measures on Wednesday.
In recent weeks, House GOP leaders have been talking up the trade deals. Yet, they have not conducted a formal whip count though deputy whips have been sounding out lawmakers informally.