Freshman House Republicans voted overwhelmingly for a trio of trade deals last week despite hopes from opponents that the faction would move en bloc to stop them.
The 89 House Republicans new to Congress this year — many of whom were backed by the Tea Party — were courted by both sides of the debate over the long-stalled trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
With their views on trade relatively unknown, some opponents of the deals thought they had an opening to sink them from the right.
But in the end, almost all of the GOP frosh voted in favor of the three agreements. Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) told The Hill a consensus formed among the newcomers that the trade deals deserved their support.
“I think what you are seeing demonstrated in the freshman class is that we are willing take on that political rhetoric and those political battles because if it’s good, sound policy, we’re going to push it forward,” said Reed, a freshman member.
Business groups and other pro-trade advocates waged an intense lobbying campaign to ensure that the Tea Party-backed members were on board with the deals.
“Many of the freshmen had business experience and recognized the positive connection between trade and jobs,” said Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade. “We would like to take the credit, but many of the freshmen were aware on their own that eliminating tariffs in the trade agreements meant reducing taxes to the benefit of American companies and consumers.”
Opponents of the trade agreements said the votes show the Tea Party has been co-opted by the establishment.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said that it was “very revealing of how thoroughly the Tea Party freshmen have been Washingtonized by the usual special-interest lobbyists and their campaign cash and the inside-the-Beltway reception and back-slap circuit.”
Trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began an outreach effort to the freshmen as soon as they arrived in Washington.
“These folks all came here to create jobs. With that as a backdrop, trade was very much an issue of interest,” said Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy at the Chamber. “We found them to be extremely receptive to the argument that trade was an engine of economic growth and this was something that they wanted to push.”
On March 1, 67 House Republican freshmen sent a letter to President Obama saying they stood ready to work with him to pass all three trade deals.
“We made it a very high priority and reached out to members, encouraging members to sign,” Wenk said.
All 67 lawmakers who signed the March letter voted for the three trade deals last week, according to a review of the votes by The Hill.
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McKinley was the only other House Republican freshman to vote against the other two trade deals, with Colombia and Panama.
In a statement on the day of the votes last week, McKinley said the trade deals would not be fair to his constituents.
“Free trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA have been nothing more than broken promises that shipped our jobs overseas, and I won’t vote for any free trade agreements unless they’re fair to my constituents,” McKinley said.
Wallach of Public Citizen said the votes in favor of the trade deals would have repercussions at the ballot box.
“Besides the corporate lobbyists, the people happiest with these votes are at the Democratic congressional campaign committees, and they’ve probably started editing the ‘GOP freshman X came to Washington saying he would create jobs and then voted for the biggest job-killing trade deal since NAFTA’ ads,” Wallach said.
Wallach has said that many Republicans have gone back on their campaign pledges by voting for the agreements, but GOP freshmen say otherwise.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to say that this somehow doesn’t jibe with the Tea Party movement, because the Tea Party movement is all about letting individuals succeed in the private sector. In order to have a strong private sector, you have to have strong trading partners,” Reed said.
Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.), another GOP freshman, said the bipartisan votes approving the trade deals show the parties can still work together despite the partisan rancor in Washington.
“When I was up there, I’m looking at the big [vote] board,” Dold said. “We heard in the past about how dysfunctional Washington is. This is an opportunity again to let people know we can work in a bipartisan manner to move the country forward, and I think that’s a huge step.”