No Deal on USMCA, but Democrats Point to Progress

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Democratic lawmakers left the capital for the Thanksgiving break without a final agreement on President Trump’s revised North American trade deal, prolonging a difficult negotiation with the administration on one of the president’s trade priorities.

But top House Democrats insisted that they were closing in on a deal on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that would satisfy their remaining concerns. Talks will continue over the break, and a vote to ratify the deal could come in the following weeks, they said.

“We’re going to stay right at this for the next week,” said Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, after a private meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative. “We do think we’re down to two and a half, maybe three issues.”

Neal, who called the meeting “spirited” but “candid,” said the parties had made substantial progress. He did not elaborate, but said some of the progress related to enforcement, a major area of concern for Democrats.

Pelosi echoed his comments. “I think we’re narrowing our differences,” she told reporters as she left the hourlong meeting near the House floor. “We made progress.”

But despite their positive statements, the parties may miss their 2019 deadline for approving the deal even if an agreement in principle is reached in the coming weeks.

Republicans have repeatedly hammered Democrats over the delays. “We are one week out from Thanksgiving, and there is still no tangible sign of progress from the House,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said in a floor speech Thursday. “If the House cannot pass the U.S.M.C.A. this year, there is no way they’ll be able to claim the people’s business has not taken a back seat to impeachment.”

Officials from Canada and Mexico have signed off on the agreement, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, the pact that has governed commerce on the continent for a quarter-century. But it needs congressional approval, which hinges on a vote in the Democratic-controlled House.

Such a vote would hand Trump a key political accomplishment in an election year. For Democrats, it would be evidence of their ability to advance legislation while also pursuing an impeachment inquiry, and it would lock in some changes to the North American trade deal they support.

Neal insisted that Congress could still vote on the pact this year. But before the meeting with Lighthizer, Pelosi signaled that a vote might have to wait until next year.

“I’m not even sure if we came to an agreement today, that it would be enough time to finish,” she said. She and Neal have repeatedly said a deal would be possible once Lighthizer offered a way to ensure that there were adequate enforcement mechanisms.

The administration’s trade deal contains some provisions that Democrats have long fought for, including rules meant to encourage auto companies to make more of their cars in North America. The plan also contains provisions meant to strengthen Mexican labor unions and roll back a special system of arbitration for corporations that has long been opposed by Democrats.

But Democrats say some portions of the agreement do not go far enough. They have protested a provision that would increase intellectual property protection for certain advanced drugs as a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry. They have argued that the pact’s labor and environmental provisions are too weak, and that the deal lacks an adequate enforcement mechanism that countries can turn to if one party breaks the rules.

Pelosi and the cluster of Democrats who have been negotiating with Lighthizer in recent weeks have framed this as an opportunity to set a standard for future trade agreements.

“There’s a feeling of urgency among some of our members, and I just want them to consider the big picture,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, a member of the group negotiating with Lighthizer. “This is a legacy vote.”

Supporters fear that, as the 2020 presidential election approaches, the pact could attract more scrutiny from voters and more criticism from the Democratic candidates, making it more difficult for congressional Democrats to support it.

“Time is running out on the most important trade event of the Trump administration,” said Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Freshman lawmakers huddled with Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., this week as part of a campaign to assuage the fears of some more moderate lawmakers eager to deliver word of the deal to their districts. But little indication was given in regards to a specific date, and Trumka previously pressured both the administration and Congress to not rush a deal.

“It feels like we’ve been at the five-yard line for a while,” said Representative Jimmy Gomez, Democrat of California and a negotiator. “But in the end, if we get what we need, it’s going to be a different agreement. It’s not going to be ‘NAFTA lite.’”

Source: New York Times

Category: International Trade