The Trump administration is in a hurry for Congress to approve the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, but key House Democrats made clear Wednesday that they will take their time considering possible changes they may want in the renegotiated North American pact.
Throughout June, the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade will likely be debating possible new USMCA provisions to enforce labor and environmental standards, and the panel will need U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to testify in the coming weeks, the panel's chairman told reporters after a two-hour hearing.
“We’re not going to respond to bluster or threats. … There’s no appetite, at least on our side of the aisle, to jam something through when we haven’t been able to appropriately follow through on this,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said in response to demands for a speedy USMCA ratification by President Donald Trump and Republicans on the subcommittee.
Trump told Democrats earlier in the week that he wouldn't work collaborate on an infrastructure bill until USMCA is approved, and GOP lawmakers accused Democrats of playing politics with the trade pact at the Wednesday hearing.
Democrats may insist on opening up the text of the agreement to make changes that would have to be negotiated again by all three countries.
The Trump administration has offered to address Democratic concerns in implementing language for the bill to ratify USMCA, but it’s still unclear if the party's leadership will agree to that. Blumenauer said he and other Democrats were open to the possibility of avoiding a reopening of the trade pact by using implementing language to improve enforcement, but he stressed that it's still unclear what the final decision will be.
Subcommittee member Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif, told Agri-Pulse on the sidelines of the hearing that he hopes the agreement doesn't have to be renegotiated.
“What you would hope is that there’s other ways,” said Panetta, who represents California's Salinas Valley. “At this point you hope that there are other ways they can … insert these enforceability measures besides opening (USMCA) up.”
During the hearing, GOP Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri accused Democrats of “slow-walking” USMCA and withholding their support solely because the issue is important to the Trump administration.
“Let’s get a vote!” Smith declared, who was quickly chided by Democrats, who adamantly denied a political agenda.
“This has nothing to do at all with opposing President Trump,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who noted that he and others had some of the same concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was negotiated by the Obama administration.
The primary concern addressed by the panel was enforcement of labor standards that the Mexico agreed on during the renegotiation of the trade pact. Both houses of Mexico’s legislature have approved the new standards, which would give Mexican workers the right to be represented by non-government unions and renegotiate contracts.
Democrats such as Rep. Stephanie Moore, D-Fla., and Suzan DelBene, D-Wash, argued that Mexico should not be simply trusted to implement the new labor provisions aimed at raising Mexican wages and preventing U.S. companies from relocating factories south of the border.
But Republicans argued that USMCA was strong enough as it is.
“Americans rightly demand that our trade negotiators obtain quality agreements with strong provisions that ensure a level playing field for American farmers, manufacturers, and service providers,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan, the top Republican on the subcommittee. “There is no question in my mind that USMCA has achieved this goal, and as a result I am a strong supporter and look forward to approving the agreement very soon.”
Cargill Vice President for Global Corporate Affairs Devry Boughner Vorwerk was the only of five witnesses at the Wednesday hearing that stressed the importance of moving quickly to ratify USMCA. The pact, she said, made major improvements to the current NAFTA and the ag sector was anxious for ratification.
“If some of these issues can be resolved to get us to ‘yes’ faster, that is ideal for American agriculture,” she told Agri-Pulse.”
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