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White House presses Dems to act on USMCA as impeachment fight looms

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a visit to the Manning Farms, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, in Waukee, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a visit to the Manning Farms, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, in Waukee, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday President Donald Trump is unlikely to be removed from office by the impeachment inquiry underway in the House, but experts say the contentious battle ahead still threatens to derail Trump’s efforts to fulfill one of his central campaign promises: renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“It’s very difficult to ascertain how long this takes,” McConnell said of the impeachment process at a Senate leadership news conference. “I’d be surprised if it didn’t end the way the two previous ones did with the president not being removed from office.”

President Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement intended to supplant NAFTA last November, but nearly a year later, congressional action on the deal remains stalled. House Democrats have been locked in negotiations with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for months seeking changes to the deal.

“This deal was done a year ago, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in Congress are spending all their time on other things, and seem to not have time to take up a deal that’s going to make a real difference in the life of this nation,” Vice President Mike Pence told supporters at an event in Louisa, Virginia Friday. “I mean, the truth of the matter is the Do-Nothing Democrats on Capitol Hill are spending all their time on endless investigations and a partisan impeachment.”

Democratic leaders and White House negotiators insist both sides are operating in good faith regarding the USMCA and making progress toward a version of the agreement that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would be willing to bring to the House floor. In an interview with Bloomberg Friday, Pelosi called the USMCA “the easiest trade deal that we’ve ever done” and said Democrats and the Trump administration are moving closer to consensus every day.

“I’d like to have it done as soon as it’s ready. I wouldn’t rule it out next year. Hopefully, we can do it sooner, but I said: when it’s ready, we’ll do it,” Pelosi said.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., also indicated last week an agreement may be imminent. However, ALF-CIO President Richard Trumka said after meeting with Pelosi and other Democrats that he is confident the deal will not get a vote unless unions’ concerns about enforceable labor protections are resolved.

“It fits back into longstanding Democratic concerns around NAFTA, and that is labor protections, although vaguely written into NAFTA, were not necessarily enforced to the extent Democrats would have hoped,” said Alexander Hitch, a research associate at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

As Lighthizer continues talks with a working group of top Democrats, President Trump and some of his allies in Congress appear to be losing patience.

“Can’t believe that Nervous Nancy Pelosi isn’t moving faster on USMCA. Her people want it, they don’t know why she isn’t putting it up for a bipartisan vote. Taking too long!” Trump tweeted recently.

In an op-ed for USA Today last month, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, accused Democrats of trying to undermine Trump at the expense of the American people.

“We were heartened to hear Speaker Pelosi and other leading House Democrats recently say that impeachment politics won’t get in the way of legislative action. We hope that’s true, but their actions will speak louder than words,” they wrote.

Although Republicans accuse them of stalling to deny President Trump a political victory, Democrats and organized labor groups say there are substantive issues that need to be addressed before they offer their support for the USMCA. Democrats are demanding stronger enforcement mechanisms, stricter labor standards and environmental protections, and changes to a provision that grants pharmaceutical companies 10 years of exclusivity for high-priced biologics before competitors can make cheaper generic alternatives.

“I really do think they want to try to get to yes,” said Clark Packard, trade policy counsel at the R Street Institute.

Many Democrats and Republicans agreed NAFTA, which was negotiated in the early 1990s, was in desperate need of updating to reflect changes in technology and to resolve decades-old complaints about the original agreement. The Obama administration attempted to wrap those changes into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral agreement that would have included Mexico, Canada, and other countries.

President Trump withdrew from TPP talks after taking office, opting instead to negotiate a narrower deal with Mexico and Canada. Experts say the result, the USMCA, is not drastically different from NAFTA or from key aspects of the TPP.

“The overall USMCA is about 95% the same as NAFTA, which sort of begs the question: why did we spend all this time and effort to renegotiate something that was 95% of the way there?” Packard said.

Eric Miller, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, pointed to a new section on digital trade and changes to rules of origin dictating what percentage of a vehicle must be made in North America and by workers earning at least $16 an hour as notable reforms.

“In many respects, the agreement is fairly similar to what was there before,” he added.

Lighthizer’s ability to resolve Democratic concerns is limited because any significant changes to the current version of the USMCA would also need to be approved by Mexican and Canadian legislators who are not eager to reopen negotiations.

Democrats are not alone in seeking changes to the agreement; some Republicans also see room for improvement. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., told Sinclair last week he has been pushing for a provision that would require disclosure of the use of any chemicals that have been deemed unsafe for consumption or the environment by the U.S. on agriculture products from Mexico.

“Assuming we get that language, then I think we would be supportive of the USMCA,” Scott said.

Although the Trump administration has pitched the USMCA as enormously consequential for American workers, experts expect its economic impact would be somewhat muted. The U.S. International Trade Commission released an analysis earlier this year predicting the agreement would increase gross domestic product by 0.35% over six years and create 176,000 jobs, increasing employment by 0.12%.

“It’s going to have a very marginal effect,” Hitch said.

Some industries would benefit more than others. Specific provisions could boost the auto sector, dairy farmers, and international shipping companies, for example, but the most consequential result may be settling the uncertainty created by President Trump’s tariffs and his threats to withdraw from NAFTA.

“The real challenge right now is the United States doesn’t know what the rules are in its trade with two of its largest trading partners,” Miller said.

Looking ahead, Packard sees two ways impeachment could shift the dynamics of the USMCA debate. For Democrats who took control of the House last year with the promise of holding Trump accountable and getting things done, it is an opportunity to prove they can do both at the same time.

“Democrats have an incentive right now to show they can do the people’s business beyond impeachment,” he said.

The bad blood between Capitol Hill and the White House stirred up by the probe could stand in the way, though, if it drives either side away from the negotiating table. According to Miller, Pelosi and Lighthizer are trying to compartmentalize things as much as possible, but that gets more difficult by the day as Democrats demand documents and witnesses and the administration stonewalls.

“The goodwill Ambassador Lighthizer has worked very hard to build with Democrats is being threatened,” he said.

Impeachment is not the only political factor complicating the path forward for the USMCA. Republican lawmakers and business groups have been pressing to get the deal approved before the end of 2019 so it does not become entangled in the drama surrounding the 2020 presidential election campaign.

“It’s amazingly complicated to pass a trade agreement in an election year,” Packard said, citing the Obama administration’s fight to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016.

If lawmakers want to avert that challenge, time is running out. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others are urging the House to vote by the end of November to ensure the deal gets to President Trump’s desk this year, but that may prove overly optimistic.

“One thing to note is there are only 16 legislative days remaining on the House calendar this year...,” Hitch said. “It’s far too tight of a window to try to squeeze this in before an election year.”

The White House and some supporters of the USMCA are confident Democrats will eventually want to pass the agreement for their own political benefit, even if it is in an election year. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers will be seeking reelection in 2020 in highly competitive districts, many of them in states where manufacturing and agriculture are vital elements of the economy.

“We have the votes in the Senate,” Marc Short, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, told “Breitbart News Sunday.” “The only question is the speaker of the House gets to determine when she brings it up for a vote in the House. The reason she’ll bring it up is if enough Democrats put pressure on her and say, ‘Look, I campaigned on working with the president and with Republicans and I’ve got nothing to show for it.’”

Short added Pence has been traveling to those swing districts promoting the USMCA and applying public pressure to vulnerable Democrats.

“In the House, I’ve continued to push for a vote on the USMCA this year, and I’ve heard directly from our district’s business owners and farmers about the need for movement on this agreement. As negotiations between the administration and the House continue, I remain hopeful that we can achieve tangible progress, address existing enforcement issues, and move this long-awaited agreement across the finish line,” one of those Democrats, Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, said Friday in response to Pence’s visit to her area.

If Democrats like Spanberger and Pelosi are genuine in their desire to advance the USMCA, they could have the opportunity to do so in the coming weeks. However, the longer it takes to forge an agreement with Lighthizer and the further into the impeachment process Congress gets before that happens, the more politically perilous that vote becomes for both sides.

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“The plane is beginning to get into orbit around the airport, but there’s a bumpy ride coming before it can land,” Miller said.

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