House Democrats look increasingly likely to approve President Donald Trump’s revised North American Free Trade Agreement before the end of the year, even as Capitol Hill is consumed with contentious impeachment proceedings.
“We’re in a good place,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters of the rebranded US-Mexico-Canada Agreement on Thursday. “I’d like to see us get it done this year. That would be my goal. I don’t imagine that it would take much more in the Senate to pass.”
A nine-member working group of Democrats has been quietly negotiating with Trump’s top trade official, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, to make changes to strengthen enforcement, ramp up environmental and labor provisions and fix an issue related to pharmaceuticals in the trade deal for months. Republicans in the administration and in Congress have repeatedly called on Democrats in recent weeks to move faster to approve the pact.
And movement could come soon: Pelosi on Thursday suggested a deal with the White House was “imminent,” and House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, the Massachusetts Democrat who is leading the talks with the administration, has told reporters he hopes to reach a solution by Thanksgiving. He said earlier this week that many of the issues Democrats took to the negotiating table have been resolved, and they are now primarily focused on shoring up enforcement of labor provisions in the deal.
“It strikes me that we’ve been at this for months — you’ve witnessed the meetings — and I hope that maybe one or two more meetings and we’ll have an affirmative position,” Neal said.
To be sure, talks between the administration and lawmakers could always fall apart in an instant; high-stakes negotiations of this nature are delicate, and both sides have had to work to keep outside pressures (impeachment proceedings, mainly) from hurting progress. But the impeachment effort has also added urgency for Democrats to pass the USMCA as a counterweight to a potential impeachment vote and a bipartisan achievement they can tout on the campaign trail.
Democrats, especially freshmen from moderate districts and trade-heavy states like Texas and California, have pushed leadership to hold a vote on the bill soon, and they are expected to largely support the agreement when it does come to the floor. Their desire for a swift vote is in tension with another wing of the party: progressive, labor-focused members who are willing to take their time on the matter if that’s what is required to ensure the changes they care about are included.
Organized labor has called for much stronger enforcement mechanisms in the deal, and labor’s support of the implementing legislation will be essential for many Democratic lawmakers. If union advocacy groups and progressive Democrats remain strongly opposed to the agreement’s passage, even with the working group’s changes, it would be a significant, potentially deadly hurdle for Democratic leaders to overcome.
Pelosi could not say with certainty on Thursday if the AFL-CIO, the United States’ largest federation of unions, will endorse the trade deal once the working group’s changes are announced.
“We’ll see what the implementation is, what that is, and the enforcement is, and I think it will be a value that is shared by our friends in labor as well as the Democrats in the Congress,” the California Democrat said.
Likewise, Neal wouldn’t answer definitively as to whether he is confident that all members of the USMCA working group will endorse the final implementing text of the bill.
“I never want to count votes until I count votes,” Neal told CNN when asked about agreement within the working group. But he did express optimism: “I think we already have consensus. It’s just a matter of now seeing it put on paper.”
A couple of members of the group — namely, Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois — are staunch labor allies and will have high expectations for the final product. How those two handle the agreement once it is finalized should offer a pretty good indication of whether Democratic leaders will have a problem on their hands or not.
DeLauro said Thursday that she has been happy with how the talks have unfolded and she is hopeful about the potential deal, but that “I still think that there are things that are still outstanding, so, you know, we’ll keep talking.”
During a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting in which Neal briefed members on the negotiations, Schakowsky spoke up to emphasize her desire for the party to be meticulous and cautious with the talks.
“This is a legacy vote,” she argued. “We need to get it right. It’s not just a matter of it being a bit better than the old NAFTA was.”
“There’s a feeling of urgency among some of our members, and I just want them to consider the big picture,” she said.
Freshmen in the meeting also spoke about the need to hold a vote on the trade pact, according to moderate Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas.
“We’re hoping that this will be done as soon as possible,” he told reporters.
Neal and his allies maintain the revised NAFTA is an improvement over the deal currently in place, and that the working group’s finished product will be even more so. Trump’s renegotiated deal would impose more stringent rules of origin and new minimum wage requirements for the auto industry.
“The one thing that is sure right now is this USMCA is far better than what we have on all fronts,” Neal said Tuesday. “So if the argument becomes the status quo vs. the new or renewed USMCA, I think that we can make a pretty sturdy argument in support of what we’ve done. We’ve improved this package.”
But some Democrats have pushed back on that perspective.
“I understand, ultimately it’s a binary choice: It’s going to be the old agreement or the new agreement,” Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan told CNN. “But I think the thing that gets missed in that is that there is a chance for us to make this agreement significantly better and not just marginally better. And if it’s just marginally better, I would say let’s punt. Let’s do it again. Let’s start over.”