Politics

White House Celebrates Trade Pact, Prepares to Sell Congress

Toomey, Heitkamp among members expressing concerns as Trump takes victory lap

Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., at a Senate Budget hearing earlier this year. Toomey expressed some concerns Monday about a new trade pact brokered by the Trump administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Donald Trump and his team convinced Canada to join a revised North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico. Now, the hard part begins: Convincing congressional Democrats, who could control one or both chambers next year, to approve it.

Trump and White House officials contend the deal, if approved by Congress, would benefit American dairy farmers and automakers. They have also highlighted new e-commerce and intellectual property protections, as well as a new six-year review mandate. And they say each should appeal to Democrats.

The president repeatedly told his negotiators he wanted a deal that would not only include America’s two contiguous neighbors, but also one that would appeal to Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike, senior aides said Monday. And the calendar suggests he will need both parties to replace the 1990s-era NAFTA and fulfill what was a major campaign promise.

“This is not a Republican-only agreement,” United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Monday.

“In the final analysis, it’s going to be take-it-or leave it because that’s how the system has worked,” Lighthizer said of the fast-track trade promotion authority process. Each time Congress has revised it, he said, they’ve added “three or four more bells and six more whistles.”

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“There is room for discussion. But our view is not our-way-or-the-highway,” he said. “On the other hand, we have a complete agreement. … I think this agreement … will be much less controversial than the original NAFTA agreement.”

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‘No poison pills’

Lighthizer repeatedly pointed to labor provisions intended to help American workers and environmental standards as examples of things Democrats should like about the pact.

“There are no poison pills for Democrats,” he told a group of reporters following Trump’s remarks at an impromptu Rose Garden press conference. Lighthizer, who was instrumental in brokering the deal, predicted the agreement would pass both chambers “with a substantial majority.”

The sections he pointed to will be key since the timing is likely to prove too tight to allow for the agreement to be processed on Capitol Hill this year. 

A vote will come “next year,” Lighthizer told a group of reporters at the White House after the president’s remarks. Trump signaled as much when he said he won’t sign the deal until late November.

The so-called fast track procedures under which the deal will move through the House and Senate have been slowed before; notably, when House Democrats last held the majority.

In 2008, the House adopted a rule stopping the clock for the expedited consideration of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi arguing that the George W. Bush administration was not honoring standards for consultation with Congress.

A decade later, Lighthizer said he has talked with Democratic members about the deal, including ones who sit on the crucial House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees. “I don’t go literally a day” without talking to lawmakers about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade talks, he added.

Selling the deal

Those conversations likely will become more frequent.

For instance, free-trade advocate Sen. Patrick J. Toomey applauded many of the things Trump and his team highlighted Monday. But the Pennsylvania Republican also has some concerns, and made clear the administration must sell him on the pact.

“Specifically, I am concerned about the proposal’s new expiration date; weakening of protections for U.S. investors; new arbitrary wage mandates on auto imports; side deals establishing quotas on automobile and automobile parts imported from Mexico and Canada; and a failure to eliminate [national security] tariffs on steel and aluminum,” he said in a statement.

Farm-state Democrats in both chambers could prove key — even more so if their party wins control of one or both chambers in November.

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One of them, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, described the agreement as something of a double-edged sword. She called it “good news for wheat growers who would no longer face an unfair Canadian grading system — a change I’ve been pushing for.”

“But it’s disappointing the concerns of cattle ranchers and potato farmers were not addressed,” she added in a statement. And, echoing Toomey, she expressed unease that it leaves in place Trump’s import fees on steel and aluminum, which she contends “are still putting North Dakota’s energy industry and agriculture manufacturing equipment companies in jeopardy.”

There has long been bipartisan opposition on the steel and aluminum fees. Lighthizer said Monday he continues to talk with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts about resolving the underlying issues that led Trump to put them in place.

While Trump’s top aides acknowledged they have work to do before garnering congressional approval, the trade representative said those efforts will soon begin.

“We’re going to take a few days to catch our breath,” Lighthizer said of his team. “And we’ll get on it.”

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