Will GOP attack Dems on trade?

Will Republicans run campaign ads against Democrats who back fast-track trade authority?

GOP operatives aren’t ruling it out, highlighting the tight spot many Democrats find themselves in as they come under pressure from President Obama to support his trade agenda.

{mosads}Trade is a rare issue where the president is aligned with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) against his liberal base and Democratic leaders such as Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who are adamantly opposed.

The unusual political dynamic could spill into the 2016 campaign season, with Democrats who side with Obama facing a potential “double whammy” of campaign opposition.

While Democrats who vote for the fast-track bill are nearly certain to take heat from liberal allies, particularly labor unions, Republicans could wage similar attacks despite the GOP’s general support for free trade.

It’s still too early to say how the debate will play out at the polls next year, GOP operatives emphasize.

Attacking Democrats for supporting trade would put the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in an awkward position, considering how hard GOP leaders are pushing Democrats to get on board.

Business groups and trade lobbyists say they don’t anticipate the GOP using the trade votes for 2016 ammunition.

“There may be individual candidates, based on the race,” said a GOP lobbyist working on trade issues, but “I would be surprised” if the NRCC adopts the tactic.

Still, trade is a populist issue, and there remains the potential for Republican challengers in blue-collar districts to go after Democratic trade supporters, both for killing U.S. jobs and empowering a president that conservatives simply don’t trust.

“It’s just way too soon to even see if it is even on the table at all,” said a Washington GOP operative who works on House races. “Obviously the legislation is still pending, and we are not at the point where we are really drilling down on what is or what isn’t something that should be considered.”

A move by Republicans to bash Democrats on trade could rankle business groups that are pushing hard for the deals in the name of increasing exports and stimulating the economy.

“Regardless of political party and affiliation, a vote for TPA [trade promotion authority] is a vote to support manufacturers, increase global competitiveness and open access to the over 95 percent of the world’s customers who live outside the U.S. borders,” said Linda Dempsey, vice president of International Economic Affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers.

McConnell on Wednesday advanced the debate over fast-track, filing a motion on a tax-exemption bill that will be the vehicle for the proposal. The TPA bill would grant Congress the authority to approve trade deals, but deny lawmakers the power to amend them.

Fast-track authority is seen as vital in Obama’s quest to solidify sweeping trade pacts like the one being negotiated between the United States, Japan and 10 other Asian-Pacific nations.

“This bipartisan bill is about a lot more than just expanding Congress’s oversight authority,” McConnell said. “It’s about delivering prosperity for the middle class and supporting jobs.”

The Senate is expected to pass the measure with broad bipartisan support, but there’s a tougher battle brewing in the House, where GOP leaders are struggling to find 217 votes in the face of conservative opponents wary of granting more authority to Obama.

GOP leaders say Obama needs to do more to win the Democratic support needed to compensate for Republican defections. Ten House Democrats are on record supporting the TPA bill, according to The Hill’s whip count, with at least 23 others publicly undecided. 

Democrats face an agonizing choice on the issue. Those voting “no” will buck a president who’s made trade a top priority of his second term. Those voting “yes” could face primary challenges from the left, as liberal groups continue to ramp up their message that deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will kill jobs.

Republican strategists are optimistic that tough Democratic primaries fought over trade will benefit GOP challengers at the polls in 2016.

“It shows fissures in the Democratic Party that, if they continue, may end up resulting in more divisive primary battles to take on our incumbents, which may give us more liberal general election Democrats,” the GOP operative said.

But in some districts, trade could be a populist issue that resonates with independents, meaning it could also create an opportunity for Republicans to attack Democratic trade supporters in the general election.

Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican with close ties to GOP leadership, said support for trade, especially among Democrats, is heavily reliant on the makeup of a lawmaker’s district. 

“There’s a lot of Democrats on the West Coast that honestly can cast this vote. Those are very prosperous districts, a lot of them are oriented toward the Pacific [and] very heavily involved in trade and high-tech areas,” he said. 

Democrats are warning that GOP attacks on trade would undermine the Republicans’ case for holding the House and Senate in the next elections.

“It’s hard to see how Republicans make the case that they can govern effectively in advance of 2016 if their political arm is savaging Democrats for supporting a bipartisan bill like this one,” said a Democratic aide whose boss supports trade. 

Vicki Needham contributed.

Tags Boehner Harry Reid John Boehner Mitch McConnell

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