With President Barack Obama signaling that passing a free-trade agreement with South Korea will be a top priority, lobbyists for and against the deal are scrambling to line up support among freshman Republicans, whose votes will be crucial in determining the fate of the agreement.
Rep. Rick Berg said he thinks trade opponents may be facing a hard sell.
“As part of the freshman class, our No. 1 issue is jobs,” said the North Dakota Republican, a new member of the Ways and Means Committee who has taken a leading role in his class in pushing for passage of trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. “There’s nothing that can help us more than to have a good trade relationship with these other countries.”
But opponents of free-trade deals say they can swing tea party backers to their side.
Michael Ostrolenk, national director of StopUSKoreaNAFTA.org, said his center-right libertarian group favors free trade but opposes the South Korea deal because it would cost U.S. jobs and sovereignty.
“We’re outreaching to a lot of the groups, like the tea party groups, and also we’ve been starting to do some Hill visits,” Ostrolenk said.
While he declined to say which Members he has lobbied, he said, “I can say this: Most of them were kind of in a neutral place, which is actually good for our side that they haven’t taken a position publicly.”
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, doesn’t agree with Ostrolenk on much, but they are unified against the South Korea deal. Though the two advocates put their different political twists on their arguments, their message is remarkably similar: The NAFTA-style agreements will put American jobs at risk and will increase the U.S. trade deficit.
Wallach said the conservative activists’ message is resonating with freshman Republicans, whose staffers have reached out to her progressive group for details.
“What’s quite funny is when I get a call from staff who have heard from more senior Republicans that they should just hold their nose and call,” Wallach said. “They’re not asking for my advice. But they say, ‘I’ve been hearing about this provision, where do I read to see it.’ Then I say, ‘Go to Chapter 11, Section B.’”
She declined to name the lawmakers whose offices have reached out.
Alan Tonelson, a senior fellow with the U.S. Business and Industry Council, is another opponent of the agreement who is looking to tea party Republicans as a key element in bringing the pact down.
“We’re trying to get access to the Tea Party Caucus, which is an especially interesting new wrinkle in trade politics,” Tonelson said.
Party politics over trade issues intensified during the George W. Bush administration, he added.
“It was difficult to find more than a handful of House Republicans who would join with us” in opposing trade deals, Tonelson said. “We think we’ve got significantly more fertile ground. But we do have a lot of work to do because this movement’s Washington presence is also lobbying them on trade.”
So is the business community, which won’t readily cede any ground to opponents of the South Korea agreement or other free-trade deals.
“A lot of these Members said things on the campaign trail or didn’t say things on the campaign trail. From our perspective, they’re all kind of a blank slate,” said Christopher Wenk, a top trade lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The chamber and business community have been aggressively reaching out to all of them and setting up meetings with individual Members.”
Last week, the chamber, the National Association of Manufacturers and others helped organize a trade briefing for about 75 staffers through the Republican Study Committee. The chamber has also met with Berg and another GOP freshman who has taken a high-profile, pro-trade stance: Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco (Texas).
“There are no better lobbyists of freshmen than Members of Congress themselves,” Wenk said, noting that the majority of freshmen are open to supporting trade.
“The bottom line is trade is back on the agenda in a major way, and we’re very excited about what’s possible on the trade front this year,” Wenk said.
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.