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June 21, 2017 1:15 PM, EDT

Trump’s Trade Chief Says US Won’t Force Quick NAFTA Deal

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

President Donald Trump’s top trade negotiator said there’s no deadline to reach a deal on revamping the North American Free Trade Agreement, and if talks end in a deadlock, the United States will be compelled to rethink its strategy.

The United States plans to start renegotiating NAFTA with partners Canada and Mexico on Aug. 16, and the government wants the discussions to move quickly, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told the Senate Finance Committee on June 21. The United States is engaging in a 90-day consultation period with domestic industry, lawmakers and the public to get ready for the start of official talks.

“I am prepared to continue to negotiate until we get a high-standard agreement unless there’s a total stalemate, in which case I’ll be back before in front of this committee and I’ll consult with senators,” Lighthizer said. “I’m not going to be in a position where I commit to the status quo going on forever. That’s not going to happen. But we don’t have any artificial deadlines.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has acknowledged that there’s a logic to wrapping up the talks by late 2017 or early next year before Mexican presidential elections in mid-2018 followed by American midterm elections that November. Trump has threatened to withdraw from NAFTA if Mexico and Canada fail to agree on more favorable terms for the United States.

Lighthizer said June 21 that Trump has asked him to focus on improving opportunities for American workers as part of the revamp.

The U.S. government plans to publish its NAFTA negotiating objectives July 17 after a series of public hearings next week, Lighthizer said. The hope is for a final agreement by the end of this year that would have broad bipartisan support when it’s presented to Congress, but many people think that timeline is “totally unrealistic,” Lighthizer said.

The USTR is working with the Treasury Department and lawmakers on whether to add a currency clause in a new NAFTA deal. However, there’s no evidence of currency manipulation by Mexico and Canada, he said.

“We’re still debating whether to put a currency-manipulation provision in here,” he said.

Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, urged the United States to take the time it needs to hammer out new trade terms that benefit workers instead of pushing artificial deadlines that could corner the U.S. into lowering its standards.

“NAFTA could use a complete overhaul,” Wyden said. “That means high-standard, enforceable labor and environmental commitments; removing Chapter 19, which hurts our ability to fight unfair trade practices” and addressing issues specific to dairy, wine and key manufacturing industries. He also said the United States needs to “combat currency manipulation, market-distorting state-owned enterprises” and trade abusers.