WASHINGTON -- Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been dreaming about cutting major deals as Senate majority leader for most of his career. Next year, he'll finally get the chance to do it with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most ambitious free trade agreement since the Clinton era. The only thing standing in his way is his own political party.
President Barack Obama's administration has been negotiating the TPP since the beginning of his presidency. Twelve nations are now involved in the talks, which have major implications for the U.S. economy, public health and foreign policy. But Obama has faced two domestic obstacles to enacting his pact: Democrats in Congress, who worry it will exacerbate income inequality, and a bloc of House Republicans, who are up in arms about the deal's implications for executive power and national sovereignty.
The administration conducts the talks in secret, so the public only knows about terms of the deal through leaked documents. But opposition from conservative hardliners has intensified since GOP gains in the midterm elections, even as McConnell has pledged to cut a deal with Obama on TPP as one of his first orders of business next year.
"I think it's insane to give Obama some power to negotiate an important treaty in secret without any supervision, not have to account to Congress or the Senate," Phyllis Schlafly, a prominent social conservative best known for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, told HuffPost last week. "It just blows my mind why Republicans would be willing to do that. We've been yapping for months about his executive actions and his executive amnesty and taking unconstitutional positions."
The internal GOP feud over what some conservative critics are calling "Obamatrade" is just the latest in a series of skirmishes between the party's corporate-friendly leadership and its populist base.
Prior to 2011, it was rare for a Republican Congress to block government perks for major corporations. But tea party-backed members have bucked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with the lobbying group's top congressional supporters, McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), almost as a matter of routine. They've killed immigration reform (a major Chamber priority), derided a repeal of the medical device tax as "crony capitalism," called for the elimination of the Export-Import Bank, and are currently roiling efforts to extend corporate tax perks during the lame-duck session.
With the populist base in revolt, ambitious Republicans eyeing potential presidential runs are struggling to sort out their policy stances. The office of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told HuffPost that he generally supports free trade deals, but will have to see what's included in Obama's final TPP agreement.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has taken every conceivable position on the trade pact. In October, he gave a speech calling for Obama to finalize the TPP by year-end. Back in January, he was scheduled to attend a press conference attacking "Obamatrade." In September 2011, he voted against an amendment offered by McConnell that would give Obama the power to push through the deal without any amendments from Congress. The next month, Paul introduced a new bill that included McConnell's entire amendment.
Paul told The Huffington Post on Tuesday that he supports the broader trade agreement but is undecided on a fast-track bill.
"I'm definitely for the trade pact," Paul said. "I haven't fully decided on [Trade Promotion Authority]."
The divide among the Washington GOP elite over trade policy is relatively new. But top Republicans have been aware of the anti-free trade base for decades. Populist attacks on foreign trade are a common theme for campaign ads from McConnell himself.
"Beshear's going international, gettin' rich off of foreign trade treaties, and sendin' jobs down to Mexico, takin' thousands of dollars from from them foreign agents and lobbyists," boomed a 1996 McConnell ad attacking his challenger, Steve Beshear, a Democrat who is now the governor of Kentucky. "Mitch McConnell pushed for a ban on foreign political money. He's been fightin' foreign trade abuses, protectin' jobs!"
McConnell made a similar pitch in May, with an ad boasting, "Mitch helped save hundreds of jobs when he fought against unfair foreign trade."
Words like "unfair," of course, give McConnell wiggle room to claim he's technically telling the truth. But the ads clearly play to working-class anxieties over trade policy that has been prevalent since President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. And while McConnell now has six years of padding after his 16-point trouncing of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes on Nov. 4, other Republicans weighing primaries in deep-red districts or at the presidential level face a more complicated political calculus, balancing a populist base with well-funded GOP allies in the Chamber.
Obama's TPP is modeled on NAFTA, and like NAFTA, it almost certainly cannot pass without a policy called "fast-track" or "Trade Promotion Authority," which strips Congress of the ability to amend or filibuster the legislation. The expanded presidential power first passed under Richard Nixon and was approved as a matter of course until the 1990s. Votes since have been politically contentious, failing in 1998 under Clinton, and squeaking by in 2002 under George W. Bush by a single vote. Fast-track authority expired with the passage of three trade pacts in 2011.
Fast-track "is a very necessary predecessor to TPP, because you aren’t going to get these 12 countries to sign the TPP until they know the Senate and the House of Representatives can’t change it," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told HuffPost. "They’re not going to negotiate the agreement twice."
But for conservative hardliners, transferring power from a Republican Congress to Obama is a big no-no.
"Why does anyone trust Barack Obama?" said Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, who has defended restricted voting rights to real estate owners. "Either he's incompetent, or he wants to negotiate trade deals that are bad for average Americans."
Fast-track and NAFTA-style deals have limited Democratic support in Congress, amid strong opposition from labor unions, public health experts, Internet freedom advocates and other liberal groups. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not brought a fast-track bill to the floor all year, and announced no plans to do so at a recent press conference.
"I'm not a big fan of fast-tracking," Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill this month. "I think that trade agreements in the past have not been good for American workers."
Even some moderate Republicans have expressed reservations over fast-track legislation. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told The Huffington Post he would not support a fast-track deal without language declaring currency manipulation an unfair trade practice.
But the House is a bigger problem for TPP supporters. Boehner didn't put a fast-track bill on the floor this year, saying he needed at least 50 firm Democratic yeas to pass it. In the new Congress, he'll have an expanded majority. But with tea party elements organizing against it, more Republicans may not do the trick.
Passing TPP will likely require a fast-track bill setting conditions for any final pact Obama negotiates. Since Boehner will need Democratic votes, he and McConnell will have to cut a deal with Obama that includes enough progressive priorities to bring at least some House Democrats on board without alienating House conservatives.
"I don't know exactly what the Republicans are going to put out, but I assume it's going to be something similar to old-fashioned [fast-tracking], where there’s nothing about about human rights, not very much about environment or worker safety or currency or trade enforcement, and that needs to be part of this before we move forward on TPP," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told HuffPost. "It's not an automatic thing just because Republicans want to have it."
So far, the most influential tea party groups, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, have stayed out of the fray. Both organizations broadly support free trade, but revile the types of concessions Democrats will demand. In 2011, Republicans nearly killed Obama trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama by demanding to eliminate a program called "Trade Adjustment Assistance," which provides federal aid to U.S. workers who lose their jobs due to expanded foreign trade.
And Trade Adjustment Assistance, which expires at year-end, may again be a battleground come January. Heritage Action has called it a "leftist" program that has "soaked" taxpayers to benefit unions. Even the nine Democrats who signed a letter last year supporting fast-track called Trade Adjustment Assistance "critical" and "a vital program to ensure that no American worker is left behind in the global marketplace."
GOP leadership can't offer many carrots to placate the conservative groups that already oppose fast-track, since those organizations think the policy is fundamentally unconstitutional, citing Article I, Section 8, which grants Congress the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations."
"It's extra-constitutional power," said Phillips. "The founding fathers were lot brighter than these guys."