Hopes dim for passage of Trump trade deal
House Democrats say there's little to no chance that Congress will take up President Trump's replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) before the end of summer.
With only three more weeks scheduled to be in session before the August recess, House Democrats from across the spectrum are demanding that the trade pact with Mexico and Canada be renegotiated, citing concerns with the implications for labor and environmental standards as well as drug prices.
The Trump administration has been pushing for approval of the deal, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), by August due to concerns that the 2020 presidential campaign will make it politically impossible to complete the deal this fall. Congress will also have to deal with avoiding a government shutdown and debt default after returning to Washington on Sept. 9 from the monthlong summer recess.
But House Democrats say that the idea of getting the trade deal done by the end of the summer session is all but out of reach.
“I don't see how that happens in three weeks,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee.
As for the Trump administration’s push to get the trade pact through Congress by August, “That's their problem. We've told them what our interests are,” Blumenauer said.
House Democrats insist that they do want to get the USMCA done, but aren't holding themselves to a deadline.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also downplayed the timing of 2020 politics, noting that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is still meeting with House Democrats to discuss their policy concerns.
“[Lighthizer] frequently will say, ‘We just don't want to get this into the presidential.’ And I say, ‘These presidential candidates, there are 20, and I think most of them probably would want a better NAFTA.’ I certainly don't speak for them. But, that really doesn't have anything to do with — it's about the substance of the agreement, not the politics at all,” Pelosi said at a press conference before the House adjourned for the July 4 recess.
“We do not want to pass this agreement just slightly different from NAFTA with a little sugar on top and say, ‘See, we did something different,’ ” she said.
Most Democratic presidential candidates are calling for changes to the agreement along the same lines as House Democrats.
Passing the USMCA would be a major legislative accomplishment for Trump as he campaigns for reelection next year. Despite their eagerness to see Trump out of office, Democrats say they want to replace the existing North American trade agreement.
“As I say to the president, to the administration, you have leverage. We want to change NAFTA,” Pelosi said. “I think that's across the board that we do and everybody's working very hard to understand the differences, to try to eliminate some or prioritize as we go along. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to do something.”
But the Trump administration, as well as the Canadian and Mexican governments, have been resistant to reopening the negotiations. Mexico became the first country to ratify the agreement last month, while Canada has yet to do so amid the uncertainty in the U.S.
The White House pointed to Lighthizer’s talks with lawmakers when asked about the path forward to approve the USMCA this year given Democrats dismissing the odds of an August vote.
“The White House and USTR are working in good faith and constructively with members to address their concerns and Congress needs to approve USMCA, the best trade agreement ever negotiated, as soon as possible,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.
Lawmakers and some advocacy groups are starting to shift their expectations that the trade agreement could be approved in the next few weeks to possibly in the fall or the end of the year before 2020 actually arrives.
They point to Pelosi designating nine House Democrats in mid-June to a working group to negotiate with the White House on changes to the North American trade deal and how Lighthizer is regularly meeting with lawmakers as a sign that an agreement could be reached in the coming months.
“The reality is even if it doesn't get done before the August break, there's good momentum for it to be concluded in the fall,” said former Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.), an honorary co-chairman of the Pass USMCA Coalition who served on the House Ways and Means Committee.
But Trade Works for America, another coalition advocating for approval of the USMCA, is still pushing for action by August. The group is running ads in 52 congressional districts across the country urging lawmakers to support the trade pact, including members of Democratic leadership.
“We do think the longer you slip into the political calendar, the more difficult an agreement like this is to pass,” said Marie Sanderson, senior adviser to Trade Works for America. “And certainly it becomes more complicated with the political and legislative calendar.”
Sanderson also cited Pelosi’s appointment of a working group as a sign for optimism.
“What we're doing is making sure that we create every opportunity for it to pass this summer,” Sanderson said, before acknowledging “the clock is ticking.”
House Democrats are seeking stronger labor and environmental standards to prevent outsourcing to Mexico, as well as terms to rein in the cost of prescription drugs and ensure transparency for meat labeling.
Before leaving for the July 4 recess, a group of 27 freshman House Democrats spanning the liberal and centrist wings of the party wrote a letter to Lighthizer demanding that the USMCA be renegotiated.
“These improvements are necessary for a renegotiated NAFTA to obtain the broad support it needs to pass,” the Democrats wrote in the letter, spearheaded by Reps. Andy Levin (Mich.), Jesús García (Ill.) and Susan Wild (Pa.).
The letter’s signatories included freshmen in districts carried by Trump in 2016, including Reps. Jefferson Van Drew (N.J.), Elaine Luria (Va.), Conor Lamb (Pa.), Jared Golden (Maine) and Elissa Slotkin (Mich.).
A number of freshmen who signed the letter, as well as some liberal members of the trade working group, also joined an event with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka outside the Capitol a day earlier to demand changes to the USMCA.
Levin, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, dismissed the push to vote on the USMCA by August as an “artificial deadline.” But he maintained that House Democrats are sincere about reaching an agreement with the Trump administration.
“I know Mr. Lighthizer feels pressure because he works with the president and the president wants to get it done. But we're working. We're really serious about getting to yes,” Levin said.
“I don't care how long it takes,” Levin added. “If we can really get a real improvement for the people of my district in Michigan, I'm for it.”