Lori Wallach of Public Citizens Global Trade Watch said she has been staying in touch with tea party activists who are concerned about free-trade agreements.
“It’s like reading the health care bill. You start finding things in there you had no idea were there,” she said, citing strict regulations for men’s pants in the Korean trade deal as an example of regulatory overreach. “A real free-trade agreement would be a very simple agreement between two countries to have free and open trade. I would support that.”
She said several freshman Representatives who signed a March letter endorsing the deals have since changed their minds. She did not name the Members.
“They sort of signed the letter as a general statement supporting free trade,” Serkes said. “President Obama is counting on using the words ‘free trade’ to rope in Republicans on Capitol Hill to support it.”
Tea party groups particularly oppose a provision that lets foreign corporations sue the U.S. government in United Nations and World Trade Organization tribunals. Jim McGovern, a member of Florida’s Martin 9/12 Tea Party Committee, said that is “a threat to the sovereignty of the United States.”
He also questioned why the White House is regulating trade when the Constitution gives that right to Congress, an argument Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has also made against the free-trade deals. The approval process would give lawmakers limited opportunity to debate the agreements and no ability to add amendments.
James Stack, a member of the same tea party group, said, “The middle class is union and nonunion. When a factory closes in a town, whether it’s a union state or a right-to-work state, the jobs are gone. It adds to the deficit and the debt and everything else.”
The AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union have cited the same reason for opposing the trade deals, but those in favor of them argue that they would actually create jobs.
Alan Tonelson, a senior fellow with the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation, said that shared interest between labor unions and tea party groups could help his side win.
“We would hope that the tea parties would make it quite clear to the Republicans they helped elect into office that these trade agreements are a non-starter [as] labor will continue to put as much pressure as it can on the White House and House Democrats,” Tonelson said. At the same time, “That’s the one-two punch that has to work.”
But it is unclear how receptive Republicans will be. Despite tea party ties, Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), as well as Rep. Tom Price (Ga.) have endorsed the trade deals.
“These agreements will be a boon to our economy,” Rubio said last month. “Our competitors in China and elsewhere have seized on our missed trade opportunities.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.