WASHINGTON - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday said he believed Congress would act to pass a new U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement this year, providing important momentum for the U.S. economy.
Pence told a packed audience at the Heritage Foundation think tank that passage of USMCA would create jobs and trigger increased investment in the United States, while helping President Donald Trump reach a trade deal with China.
"We're going to keep fighting to get the USMCA across the line. I believe we can get it done this year," Pence said.
The Trump administration has been pressing for swift approval of the trade deal. But House Democrats say they want better mechanisms to enforce labor and environmental standards, and to ensure that the deal does not lead to higher drug prices for U.S. consumers.
CNBC said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the network in an interview to air later on Tuesday that Democrats aim to get to a place where they can ratify the trade deal, but still have concerns about enforcing it.
"We hope that we're on a path to 'Yes.' The most important issue outstanding is enforceability," she told CNBC.
Pence said speedy passage of the agreement would help Washington deal more effectively with China. "By bringing North America together ... it will only strengthen the president's hand as we demand that China end the trade abuses that have characterized the decades of the past," he said.
Pence said the USMCA was "so advanced and so comprehensive" that it could serve as a template for future trade agreements with Britain, the European Union, Japan, or "even China."
Martha Barcena, Mexican ambassador to the United States, said she hoped Congress would pass the trade accord this year.
She said Mexico, whose parliament has already approved the agreement, was seeking to inform U.S. lawmakers about its newly enacted labor reforms and how they were being funded.
She told Reuters after Pence's speech that Mexico did not view changes in the text of the agreement as necessary.
"We don't need changes in the text of the USMCA. We think they can be solved with the current text, and with parallel agreements," she said.
Canada's acting envoy to the United States, Kirsten Hillman, said she was optimistic the measure would pass Congress.
"There's enough will there, and it's still early enough that it can probably move along. We're hearing good things so we're optimistic," she said.
Canada will wait to approve the agreement until after its Oct. 21 election, she said, echoing Mexico's reluctance to reopen the trade agreement.
"That's the deal we signed. That's the one that we have started to move through our house," she said.