By Erik Wasson
Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised the changes her House Democats were able to negotiate, saying the revised deal is better for American workers. She said the new version of the accord, known as the USMCA, will be a model for other trade agreements going forward.
“This is the day we have been waiting for,” Pelosi told reporters. “It is infinitely better than what was initially proposed by the administration.”
Trump welcomed the finalized overhaul of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been languishing for more than a year and could resolve some of the uncertainty weighing on the economy as he heads into his re-election campaign. But it is also a win for House Democrats who are eager to prove that they can do more than investigate and impeach Trump.
The timing on Tuesday was extraordinary, with Pelosi flanked by more than 30 of her colleagues announcing the long-awaited trade deal just minutes after chairmen of House committees investigating Trump unveiled the two articles of impeachment they plan to bring against the president. She said the back-to-back announcements were not a coincidence.
“We are at the end of the session and you have to make some decisions,” Pelosi said.
The timing will prove more difficult in the Republican-led Senate, according to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He told reporters Tuesday that the Senate won’t take up the USMCA until after it finishes with the impeachment trial next year.
“We will not be doing USMCA next week in the Senate,” McConnell said Tuesday.
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham later said in a statement it is “long overdue for Congress to take up the USMCA.” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer also told senators earlier Tuesday that the Trump administration wants a vote by next week.
“We expect to push hard on passing the implementing bill before the end of the year,” Grisham said after McConnell’s comments on Senate vote timing.
The House and Senate passed trade agreements with Korea, Panama, and Colombia on the same day in 2011, according to Henry Connelly, a Pelosi spokesman.
“Senator McConnell has no excuse not to bring up the USMCA,” Connelly said in an emailed statement.
The changes that Democrats demanded on provisions regarding the environment, pharmaceuticals, labor and overall enforcement were the subject of intense negotiations between Lighthizer and House Democrats, led by Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts.
“Every once in a while you get to participate in a will-it-ever-happen moment,” Neal said Tuesday. “This is a triumph for workers across America.”
Lighthizer called the agreement “historic” and said the accord “will be the model for American trade deals going forward.”
“After working with Republicans, Democrats, and many other stakeholders for the past two years we have created a deal that will benefit American workers, farmers, and ranchers for years to come,” Lighthizer said in a statement.
Pelosi told her Democratic members earlier Tuesday that she expects a House vote next week, according to Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas. Neal also confirmed that timing.
“We are ready to rock and roll,” Cuellar said after a closed-door meeting of Democratic representatives in Washington. “We’re very confident. We have the numbers” to pass the deal.
Pelosi later told reporters she hopes for a vote “before the end of the session,” which would be before Congress recesses for the holidays on Dec. 20.
Representatives from Canada, Mexico and the Trump administration met in Mexico City Tuesday and signed the amendments to the trade agreement. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the new version would be ratified by the legislatures of all three countries.
The revised trade agreement removes a loophole in Nafta that allowed any country to object to the formation of enforcement panels, and it updates rules governing how evidence can be presented at arbitration panels, according to a summary of the agreement.
The major sticking point in talks for months has been labor-rights enforcement. The deal creates a new labor-specific dispute panel system covering all goods and services, and labor violations can lead to “penalties on goods and services.”
Instead of U.S. labor inspectors in Mexico, which Mexican negotiators opposed, the deal creates an inter-agency committee to monitor labor rights in Mexico and allow labor attachés to monitor labor reforms.
The agreement establishes benchmarks for Mexico’s implementation of its new labor law. If they the deadline is not met, that leads to “enforcement action,” according to the summary.
Democrats also managed to remove a provision that would have guaranteed 10 years of data protection for biologic drugs, which pharmaceutical companies lobbied to preserve.
“We now have a new and improved, renegotiated Nafta that prevents Big Pharma from raising prices,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat.
The Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a drug industry group, said removing protections for biologic drugs “surrendered one of the most important tools” that would help Trump keep his promise to “end foreign free-riding on American medical innovation.”
Pelosi said that she was not able to remove a provision granting legal liability protections for internet companies from the deal.
On rules for steel in cars, which emerged as one of the most contentious final issues, the nations agreed to give Mexico seven years to build the value chains to ensure that 70% of the metal for vehicles traded duty-free is poured and melted within North America. Mexico currently imports steel slab from countries including Brazil, Germany and Japan.
On aluminum, almost none of which originates in Mexico, there will be no immediate change, with the issue revisited in 10 years, Mexico’s chief negotiator, Jesus Seade, told reporters in Mexico City.
While there was some relief in Mexico to have preserved free trade, not everyone was happy with the deal. Gustavo de Hoyos, head of the business chamber known as Coparmex, said the advice of Mexico’s private sector wasn’t taken sufficiently into account. He compared the deal to the 1848 Mexican-American War, when Mexico lost California and parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Seade responded that he was in frequent contact with business representatives.
Trump tweeted his support for the revised agreement Tuesday before Pelosi’s announcement.
Republicans in the U.S. Congress have been relentlessly pressuring Democrats to put the trade agreement up for a vote. Some Republicans on Monday said they were concerned that the changes to the trade agreement, negotiated in close consultation with labor unions, would stray too far from the original deal.
Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley, the Republican who will shepherd the deal through the Senate after House passage, said he isn’t worried that the revisions would slow its passage.
”I don’t think it’s going to be big enough to stop us from getting it passed,” Grassley said about GOP concerns.
Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise, the Republican responsible for counting his party’s votes in the House, praised the deal and said Congress should continue working on other “outdated trade deals.”
“I predict an overwhelming vote for this agreement,” Scalise said in a statement. “Republican support for President Trump’s hard-negotiated trade deal will be strong.”
One of the most important endorsements for the deal came from the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the U.S. Richard Trumka, the group’s president worked closely with Democrats on the negotiations.
“We demanded a trade deal that benefits workers and fought every single day to negotiate that deal; and now we have secured an agreement that working people can proudly support,” Trumka said in a statement. “Trade rules in America will now be fairer because of our hard work and perseverance. Working people have created a new standard for future trade negotiations.”