The Trump administration, seeking to gain support for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement from apprehensive House Democrats, sent its chief trade adviser to Capitol Hill Wednesday morning to try to sell the pact and address lawmakers’ concerns.

“This was just the opening opportunity to try to persuade (Democrats),” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., told Agri-Pulse after the meeting with Lighthizer. “There was some vigorous discussion in the room.”

Lighthizer declined to comment to reporters, but in the closed-door meeting he did tell lawmakers that “he was open to suggestions,” Neal said.

Democrats have a lot of suggestions and concerns, most of which have to do with labor, environment and pharmaceutical provisions in the renegotiated North American trade pact. Reps. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., voiced frustration over what they and others say are a lack of enforcement measures in the pact to ensure Mexico will follow through with a pledge to improve salaries and conditions for workers in automobile plants.

Mexico’s USMCA pledges to raise wages and give union members access to collective bargaining are seen by Democrats and Republicans as key stopping U.S. factories from moving south of the border to take advantage of cheap labor.

“We’re depending on (Mexico) to pass the (labor) laws and … meanwhile they’re asking for our votes on this agreement,” Chu said, stressing she felt very unsatisfied after the hourlong meeting with Lighthizer. “My question was, ‘What if (Mexico) doesn’t pass the laws? What are the consequences?’”

Democrats didn’t get an answer to that, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who also praised Lighthizer for coming to Capitol Hill and stressed that she and other Democrats want to support the trade pact.

“He’s listening, which is a very good thing for him to do,” DeLauro said. “We want to get there, but there are some things that will prevent us from getting there if they are not changed.”

One of those things is new protections for drug companies and their patents for biologic pharmaceuticals. New definitions for the drugs and extended patents will push up prices for people in all three countries, say many Democrats.

“One major thing we want to make sure is that the prices of pharmaceuticals don’t go up,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told Agri-Pulse.

Neal played down the importance of the Wednesday meeting, but also told reporters that Lighthizer suggested there could be some flexibility on the pharmaceuticals issue.

There is a very real threat of Democrats blocking USMCA when it eventually comes to the floor of the House for a vote (Lighthizer did not talk about when that could happen, lawmakers said), but that could be a blow for the U.S. agricultural sector.

USMCA, like the current NAFTA that President Donald Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of, would maintain zero tariffs on most agricultural trade between the three countries.

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