By Alexander Bolton - 04/28/15 06:00 AM EDT
Trade legislation is sowing discord among Senate Republicans that could make it tougher than expected to pass fast-track trade authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
While much of the attention in the trade fight has focused on the divide between President Obama and liberal Democrats, Republican leaders are facing dissent within their own caucus because of currency manipulation and immigration concerns.
“The polling is bad, and some people are getting nervous,” said a GOP senator who requested anonymity to talk about his conversations with colleagues.
Potential Republican “no” votes on the bill include Sens. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsSenate fight brews over Afghan visas Sessions: Ryan 'needs to' endorse Trump soon GOP senator: 'I would consider’ being Trump’s VP MORE (Ala.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSenators to Obama: Make 'timely' call on Afghan troops levels Senate amendments could sink email privacy compromise Trump: Romney 'walks like a penguin' MORE (S.C.), Richard BurrRichard BurrThe Trail 2016: Hell breaks loose Burr, Ross in statistical dead heat in NC Senate race Senate panel advances spy policy bill, after House approves its own version MORE (N.C.) and Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Moore CapitoInvest in infrastructure to transform America Senate Republicans ask Trump to soften his tone Skittish GOP to Trump: Drop the insults MORE (W.Va.).
Ten to 15 Senate Democrats are expected to vote for the fast-track bill, which means Republican leaders can only afford to lose fewer than 10 caucus members.
“I think it’s going to be tight,” said Sen. John BoozmanJohn BoozmanOvernight Tech: House GOP launches probe into phone, internet subsidies Overnight Tech: Trade groups press NC on bathroom law GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' MORE (R-Ark.), who is leaning in favor of voting yes because the farm community supports the legislation.
Republican senators say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellHillary's ObamaCare problem In House GOP, Ryan endorsement of Trump seen as inevitable McConnell: Trump White House will have ‘constraints’ MORE (R-Ky.) and his leadership team have begun to count votes, a sign that they’re not taking passage of the measures for granted.
“It could be a problem depending on how few Democrats vote for it. The president has to step up and work it,” said another GOP senator, who requested anonymity to discuss his party’s whip count.
While the trade deals are popular with the business community, they are controversial among the conservative base in states — such as Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina and South Carolina — where Republican incumbents are running for reelection next year.
“Why would any Republican give President Obama more authority?” said Ed Martin, president of Eagle Forum, a conservative advocacy group.
Beyond the procedural argument, Martin said a growing number of people in the GOP base think free trade agreements are harmful for the working class and bad for jobs.
“The Republican Party is becoming aware of this more and more,” Martin said. “I don’t think Republicans should make it easier to have more free trade agreements that are bad for this country.”
A survey conducted by YouGov.com at the end of March found that 39 percent of Republicans think free trade agreements have a negative impact on wages and jobs. Thirty-one percent of Democrats felt the deals would depress wages, while 24 percent thought they would hurt employment.
The same survey showed only 10 percent of Republicans think free trade agreements will boost wages.
Patrick Davis, a Republican strategist, said GOP voters’ views of free trade have changed since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early ’90s, especially in northern Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and South Carolina.
“The base voters, Republican voters and even Tea Party voters, are economic voters,” Davis said. “Those in Washington in the Republican leadership are at odds with their base over this issue because Republicans and Tea Party types have seen wages go down, lost wages and lost jobs since the last time we did a big trade deal.”
The fast-track bill passed out of the Finance Committee on Wednesday with a strong bipartisan vote, 20-6. Seven Democrats voted for it and only one Republican, Burr, voted no.
Burr told The Hill he was concerned that tobacco, a major product in his home state, might receive unfair treatment in future trade agreements.
While the number of Democrats who voted for the fast-track bill — which was jointly negotiated by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin HatchSenate contradicts itself on Gitmo Ten senators ask FCC to delay box plan An affordable housing solution both parties can get behind MORE (R-Utah), House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanHispanic lawmakers face painful decision on Puerto Rico Sessions: Ryan 'needs to' endorse Trump soon Dole: Gingrich should be Trump's running mate MORE (R-Wis.) and Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenDems see political gold in fight over Trump's taxes Puerto Rico debt relief faces serious challenges in Senate Senate panel delays email privacy vote amid concerns MORE (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on Finance — appeared promising, Democratic aides say the final number of Democratic yeses is unlikely to exceed 15.
“It’s possible that more than half of the yes votes already voted for it in committee,” said a senior Democratic aide.
Republicans have expressed concerns over enhanced trade authority that include the measure’s failure to address currency manipulation by China and others, the possibility that it could empower Obama to increase immigration levels and the fate of home-state exports such as tobacco and coal.
“I’m really looking at it carefully. Our state is under serious economic distress right now. So I’m going to look at it to see if it brings greater opportunities,” Capito said.
Sessions is worried that giving Obama, and future presidents, fast-track power could serve as a backdoor to increased immigration.
He circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter recently warning: “The real danger here is that before the ink is dry on TPA, and at any time during the life of TPA, any president can negotiate changes to our immigration laws.”
The Finance Committee has pushed back against this criticism, issuing a memo asserting the Obama administration has no authority under TPA or any pending trade agreement to unilaterally change immigration law.
The failure of the TPA bill to address currency manipulation is a problem for Graham and Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanJuan Williams: Electoral map looks grim for Trump McConnell touts 'Senate squad' in Wes Anderson-style video Liberal super-PAC hits Johnson for supporting Trump MORE (R-Ohio), who served as U.S. Trade Representative under former President George W. Bush and is facing a tough reelection.
The Finance Committee rejected Portman’s amendment that would have required the executive branch to include enforceable currency manipulation standards in any future trade deal.
Portman’s proposal also would have put “teeth” into International Monetary Fund standards for currency that other countries have already agreed to, according to a summary from his office.
Portman said the current language in the fast-track legislation is “aspirational” but not “enforceable,” and warned he is not an automatic yes on the floor vote even though he supported the measure in committee.
“It’s a tougher choice because I think it’s important to have in there,” he said.
The Finance panel voted 18-8 to add language to a separate customs enforcement bill requiring the Commerce Department to crack down on currency manipulation by imposing duties.
But Republicans concerned about the issue grumble there’s little chance that that legislation will become law.
“That’s problematic for me,” Graham said about the rejection of Portman’s amendment.
“Will the currency legislation that was adopted, will it get to the president’s desk? I need to know that.”