Democrats face mounting pressure on trade deal

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A long-sought trade agreement with Canada and Mexico has languished in the U.S. House, and Democrats who control the chamber are facing increasing pressure to greenlight the deal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, embroiled in proceedings related to impeaching President Trump, is eager to tout her legislative achievements. That effort has been overshadowed by the stalled U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

Trump has excoriated Pelosi for refusing to call up the USMCA for a vote. The president ramped up pressure on Pelosi and blamed her personally for preventing the deal from clearing Congress and instead focusing on his impeachment.

“She’s incapable of moving it,” Trump said earlier this month. “We can’t get USMCA approved because Nancy Pelosi is grossly incompetent.”

Pelosi has easily brushed off Trump’s insults, but it is getting harder for her to ignore swing-district House Democrats who are clamoring for the deal to become law so they can show constituents a significant House achievement amid the impeachment battle.

“I’m in Miami, I have a big port,” Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala said. “This is important to the people in South Florida.”

The trade deal, a revised version of the quarter-decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement, would add $68.2 billion to the U.S. economy and create 176,000 new jobs, the International Trade Commission reported earlier this year.

Pelosi, under pressure, has signaled to the media that a deal is imminent. At one point, she suggested a vote on the USMCA could come by year’s end. But in reality, Democrats remain unhappy with labor and environmental enforcement provisions, as well as a clause in the deal that they fear could lead to higher U.S. drug prices.

All three must get settled before Pelosi will sign off on the USMCA.

Shalala said her top concerns are labor-centered. Mexico has “gotten rid of” many of the labor protections included in the USMCA, such as protecting unions and paying workers as little as a dollar an hour. “Mexico has a lot of work to do,” she said.

Democrats are at odds with each other over how far to push for enforcement. Many Democrats, including Pelosi, have called for reopening the trade deal, which has already been approved by Canada and Mexico, to add enforcement language. Other Democrats say they are willing to accept a side agreement on enforcement that doesn’t require reopening the whole deal.

“It should be in the underlying bill,” Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a key negotiator, said. “That has been from day one.”

The Democrats’ top negotiator, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richie Neal, said he believes an agreement can be reached without reopening the entire trade deal. “The idea is to make sure the mechanisms we have developed for labor enforcement have the right appropriation to accompany it,” Neal said.

Neal and other Democrats have been working closely with Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Canadian and Mexican officials to try to ensure Mexico complies with the trade deal’s labor regulations.

“The Canadians have indicated they will use whatever leverage and influence they have to convince Mexico these enforcement mechanisms have to be for real and they have to be enforced,” Neal said.

Democrats have suggested they are close to a deal, but nothing is in writing yet.

“The enforcement issues are still outstanding issues,” Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez said after a meeting between AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and freshmen Democrats. “There hasn’t been complete agreement on it. We have exchanged, but we need to get something a little more solid.”

Pelosi last week reversed her earlier optimism that the House would vote on the USMCA by year’s end. She described the deal on enforcement language as “within range” but said Democrats await seeing the agreement “in writing.”

The negotiations over trade have been overshadowed by impeachment. The House next week is set to embark on more public impeachment hearings, and a vote on articles of impeachment could take place in late December. Democrats will also be tied up with passing fiscal 2020 legislation ahead of a Dec. 20 deadline.

A vote on USMCA seems unlikely until the new year, at the very least. “To get it done this year, we’ve got to get over the enforcement hurdle,” Shalala said.

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