CAPITOL HILL - U.S. lawmakers of both parties say hurdles remain for approving a new trade pact between the United States, Canada and Mexico, rejecting President Donald Trump’s call for prompt votes on a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA.
Last year, the administration made good on one of Trump’s main campaign promises - negotiating a replacement for NAFTA, which went into effect in 1994, with a new trade accord, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California made headlines Tuesday demanding changes to the pact to strengthen enforcement provisions and announcing the chamber will not vote on the accord until Mexico approves and implements tougher labor standards.
“No enforcement, no treaty,” Pelosi said at a Politico event, adding, “It’s a big issue, how workers are treated in Mexico.”
Senate Democrats echoed the speaker.
“There’s still work to do [on the USMCA]“ Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen told VOA. “I agree with Speaker Pelosi that Mexico needs to fully enact the labor rights reform measures. There are also a number of issues on the environmental front, and we need to make sure we have an effective enforcement mechanism.”
“We’re waiting to see whether or not the proposal will have a lot more fortified enforcement provisions, that’s my top concern,” Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said. “That’s always been a major concern of trade agreements generally. That’s why I have always been an aggressive skeptic, and I remain so.”
Democrats are not alone in expressing reservations. Forty-six House Republicans wrote a letter to the White House opposing language in the USMCA proposed by Canada to protect the rights of LGBT sexual minorities.
“A trade agreement is no place for the adoption of social policy,” conservative Freedom Caucus members said in the letter.
Devil in the details
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said he, like all lawmakers, needs time to assess the USMCA’s impact on economic sectors in his state.
“Trade deals are generally difficult to get votes on because, the bigger they are, the likelier there are individual industries affected by some detail of the deal - Florida included, with our vegetable growers [who complete with Mexico],” Rubio said.
To go into effect, the USMCA would have to be approved by legislatures in the United States, Mexico and Canada. Some on Capitol Hill railed against any delay.
“It would be a killer, a big mistake” the Senate’s number two Republican, John Thune of agriculture-rich South Dakota, told VOA. “That’s a very carefully negotiated agreement we got signed, sealed and delivered. Now it’s just a function of signing off on it. And we just need to get it done.”
Thune added, “Any attempt to go back and rewrite it is a non-starter.”
Thune’s impatience matches that of the White House, which is pressing Congress to act on the USMCA as soon as next month to get the vote out of the way before the 2020 U.S. election cycle fully heats up, at which point trade votes could be even more dicey.
Administration officials have sought to reassure wavering lawmakers that their concerns can be addressed in side agreements with Canada and Mexico, rather than reopening negotiations on the pact itself.
Pelosi rejected such assurances.
“We’re saying that enforcement has to be in the treaty,” the House speaker said. “[I]f you don’t have enforcement, you ain’t got nothing.”
Enforcement is key
American business and labor groups are weighing in, as well.
“This agreement right now, for it to be voted on, would be premature,” Richard Trumka, president of America’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg TV. “The Mexican government has to change their [labor] laws, then they have to start effectively enforcing them, and then they have to demonstrate that they have the resources necessary to enforce those laws, because if you can’t enforce a trade agreement, it’s useless.”
The U.S. Farm Bureau, by contrast, urged swift implementation of the USMCA.
“Farmers know a good deal when we see one,” Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall wrote in a statement. “Without USMCA, our most critical markets hang in the balance. Both Canada and Mexico have already signed another deal that does not include the United States.”
The USMCA would replace NAFTA, a pact implemented under the Clinton administration in the 1990s. NAFTA has been credited with vastly expanding trade in North America, but also blamed for accelerating the pace of manufacturing job losses in the United States.
Trump repeatedly blasted NAFTA as a disastrous trade deal for America during his successful 2016 campaign -- a view Pelosi and other Democrats have echoed.
“I, myself, voted for NAFTA the first time,” the speaker said at the Politico forum. “I do think I was burned by it. I don’t think it lived up [to its promises].”