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May 30, 2019 2:15 PM, EDT

Democrats Push Ahead on New NAFTA in Spite of Trump-Pelosi Feud

Leaders sign USMCA Then-Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (from left, front row), President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after signing the USMCA. (Sarah Pabst/Bloomberg)

Democrats are still holding out hope they can advance the replacement for NAFTA despite ongoing acrimony between President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

An exchange of barbs between Pelosi and Trump after a scuttled White House infrastructure meeting last week and the ongoing debate among House Democrats over whether to impeach the president have fanned doubts about whether the two sides can cooperate enough to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement — Trump’s most urgent legislative priority as he heads into 2020 elections.

Democratic lawmakers and their aides said both parties can look past the squabbling to reach a deal that can pass the Democratic-controlled House. Still, they are urging the White House to speed up collaboration and start addressing their concerns to get a vote on the agreement by year-end, which is the goal for Trump’s team.

The aborted infrastructure meeting was a setback for those in Congress who were hoping for more cooperation on agenda items that matter to both sides, said a senior Democratic aide, who declined to be identified. However, instructions from the speaker to her members haven’t changed, and she’s in no way abandoning the work on USMCA, the aide said.

Infrastructure Week

Hoyer

In a step viewed as positive, the speaker this month created working groups to negotiate with the administration on areas in USMCA they’d like to see changes, including provisions on labor, environment, pharmaceuticals and enforcement. The removal of U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico this month also cleared a hurdle for lawmakers of both parties.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in a May 29 interview downplayed the effect that Trump’s angry outburst toward Pelosi would have on the USMCA process, and he emphasized the need for the White House to address Democratic policy objections.

“We are trying to get to yes,” Hoyer said.

Pelosi has repeatedly made clear that rushing a vote — like the president has said was necessary — would be a bad idea. There’s precedent for Pelosi stalling trade agreements in Congress that she felt weren’t strong enough on labor and the environment.

The risk for Democrats is that Trump may follow through on his threat to withdraw from the original NAFTA, a scenario that would increase tariffs across the continent.

Robert Lighthizer

Robert Lighthizer by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg. 

Both parties realize the economic importance of getting the agreement approved, said Clete Willems, a former senior White House trade official who is now a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington. “I hope that both sides will put politics aside and get this passed,’’ he said. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who led the renegotiation of NAFTA, and Pelosi “are professionals,” he added.

It “would be a sad commentary on the state of our affairs’’ if Pelosi and her caucus reject USMCA because Democrats don’t want to give Trump a win for 2020, Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, said May 29. Pence was set to visit Ottawa May 30 to advance the deal, which the Canadian and Mexican legislatures also still need to pass. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on May 29 introduced legislation to ratify USMCA.

Pelosi is not rushing congressional consideration because she needs to balance a wide diversity of views on trade in her caucus.

Trade skeptic Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut on May 30 said Canada was acting prematurely.

“While the Canadians rush to approve this deal, Congressional Democrats remain committed to making key changes to the core of the agreement that will include strong labor and environmental standards and enforcement and remove the monopoly rights for Big Pharma,” she said.

House Democrat Gregory Meeks of New York, a member of the pro-trade New Democrat Coalition, said Pelosi has repeatedly consulted moderates about working out a deal on USMCA and refining Democratic demands.

“People want to get this done and realize that having an agreement is better than having no agreement,” he said.