Immigration policy has emerged as a threat from the right to the fragile congressional coalition pushing fast-track authority for pending free-trade deals.
The White House and Republican congressional leaders are both seeking to give trade promotion authority, or TPA, to President Barack Obama, which would allow Congress to vote up or down on a new mega-sized Pacific deal and one with Europe, but not to amend them.
Business leaders and proponents in Congress are pitching the deals as a way to open up overseas markets to U.S. exports — for example, Georgia agricultural products. Fearing depressed wages, organized labor has pulled Democrats including Georgia U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson, John Lewis and David Scott away from the president to oppose TPA.
And the conservative case against the deal boils down to distrust of Obama. On immigration, that is based in part on his November action — now under court challenge — to remove the threat of deportation from millions of people living in the country illegally.
Steve Ramey, a co-chairman of the Gwinnett Tea Party, said he opposes giving Obama “exclusive power” to make trade agreements with other nations.
“So far during the Obama administration it appears Congress has rubber-stamped everything Obama has done,” Ramey said in an email. “I do not see anyone in the House or Senate on (the) floor fighting vehemently to stop the president’s onslaught of laws, rules and regulations that have placed a stranglehold on our nation’s economy.”
Isakson: Trade deal cannot change U.S. law
The U.S. Senate is set to begin debating trade promotion authority in the coming days, and both Georgia Republican U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue are firmly on board. Isakson recently gave the weekly Republican address on the topic, in which he disputed the immigration concerns.
Immigration can be a powerful motivator for the Republican grass roots, but Isakson said in an interview Thursday that the trade deal does not belong in the category of hotly debated immigration bills.
“I mentioned it (in the weekly Republican address) because there were a narrow band of interest groups that were mentioning trade as being promotion of immigration,” Isakson said.
He added that the bill includes specific language saying “the president cannot sign any deal that changes U.S. law, and only the Congress of the United States can do it. And immigration law is U.S. law. And his executive order, which he did on amnesty, is not something you can do. You can’t do an executive order in a trade deal anyway.”
Perdue said he respected the immigration concerns, but he emphasized that Congress still would have to approve a final trade deal — and would reject one that expands immigration. Promotion authority, he added, is crucial to getting a deal done because no country would sign on if it knew the agreement was subject to amendment by 535 members of Congress.
“That’s a great call-out; we’re all concerned about it,” Perdue said of immigration. “But how I feel about that is we have final oversight authority for whatever comes out. So all this does is allow the president to go negotiate so that people can depend on the negotiation.”
Opponent says foreign workers could increase
The senators have to contend with the worries of people such as Lori Pesta, a Republican activist from Cherokee County.
“We are going to definitely have an increase of foreign workers into our country, whether they are legal or illegal,” said Pesta, the founder and president of Citizens Oversight and Education of Cherokee County, a private watchdog group.
She called the trade bill unnecessary. “If it doesn’t guarantee anything in the future and everything has to go through Congress anyhow, I don’t think it should pass,” she said. “If we are going to have a fair trade agreement, we should be scrutinizing these issues as we go along.”
The charge from the right in the Senate has come from Alabama Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a longtime trade deal foe.
"At any point during the 6-year life of TPA, the Administration could send Congress a trade deal — or issue an executive action subsequent to a trade deal as part of its implementation — that increased foreign worker entry into the U.S., all while claiming it has never changed immigration law," Sessions wrote in a press release marked "critical alert."
As evidence, Sessions cited a sideline agreement to the 2011 U.S.-South Korea trade deal that extended the length of visas for transfers within companies from three years to five.
‘There’s no there there’
Trade proponents, led by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., pointed out that South Korean nationals were already allowed to stay up to seven years, so the visa change was within the law.
Ryan, the GOP's 2012 vice presidential nominee and who is well-respected by his colleagues, has aggressively pushed the deal. A fact sheet on his committee's website challenged the Sessions crowd's concerns.
In addition to the repeated pledges from the administration that the Trans Pacific Partnership will include no changes in U.S. immigration policy, Ryan points to language in trade promotion authority that makes sure the administration holds the line.
One example: “TPA includes improved provisions to ensure that implementing bills include ‘only such provisions as are strictly necessary or appropriate to implement’ trade agreements.”
When asked whether he is hearing concerns on immigration, Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck replied: “Only from reporters, not members. There’s no there there.”
U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Cassville Republican, said “we are hearing a little bit about” immigration and trade from constituents.
Loudermilk and seven House colleagues recently traveled to the Middle East and Europe on a homeland security fact-finding trip, and Loudermilk said the members talked among themselves about the trade deal. There’s real hand-wringing when it comes to backing a top priority of Obama, whom so many Republicans loathe.
“I am definitely a free-trade person, but the devil’s in the details,” Loudermilk said.
He added: “The biggest concern that some have is who’s in the White House.”
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