U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer sought on Wednesday to convince skeptical House Democrats that the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement will do enough to address their concerns over drug pricing and enforcement of labor and environmental standards.
“You are driving this across the finish line at 100 mph but the right deal for America needs to come under the speed limit,” Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., told Lighthizer at a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee. "If Congress can’t look over every inch, we’re not giving the green light.”
When Pascrell asked Lighthizer if he was open to changing the text of the agreement, Lighthizer said he "didn't think it was necessary" to change the text of the agreement to meet the legitimate needs of members.
Lighthizer repeatedly assured committee Democrats he would negotiate with them on provisions separate from the new trade pact and that he shared their criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement that USMCA would replace. The Democratic-controlled House is considered a far bigger hurdle for the USMCA implementing legislation than the GOP-held Senate.
“I can sit down in half a day and work out the labor provisions. I can sit down in half a day and work out the environmental provisions ... I’m not on the other side. I’m on the same side,” Lighthizer told Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.
On Thursday, Mexico became the first country to approve the agreement, which Mexico's chief trade negotiator announced on Twitter. "We are confident that our partners will soon do the same in the interests of a strong North America, with clear rules, attractive for investment, stable and competitive," he wrote.
A small group of House Democrats appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to negotiate with the Trump administration was scheduled to meet for the first time Wednesday night.
Blumenauer, who chairs the Ways and Means trade subcommittee, told Lighthizer that he hopes the group can start “working with you within the week so that we can drill down on some the things that you have mentioned.”
No meeting with Lighthizer had been scheduled as of Wedneday, and it’s not clear how long the process will take.
“If (Lighthizer) is willing to be flexible, I think we can move through these things,” Blumenauer told reporters outside the hearing, referring to provisions that address Democratic concerns.
Still, Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., told reporters that Congress is unlikely to consider the USMCA implementing bill before the August recess, which pushes consideration of the measure into the fall, when it could be caught up in a spending battle between Congress and the White House. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
“It seems like we’re stuck, and each side is waiting for the other to make a move here,” Kind said.
Kind said he would like to see a detailed proposal from administration of how to implement the labor reforms in Mexico so Congress will be confident this will actually get done.
During Wednesday's hearing, Democratic committee members repeatedly said there had to be guarantees that the labor and enforcement standards were going to be enforced. Another major concern among Democrats is whether the agreement would prevent the United States from taking steps to reduce drug prices.
“The key to any trade agreement is enforcement, and unfortunately our track record on that has been very poor, particularly with labor provisions” Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., said.
Lighthizer told the committee there are strong labor reforms in the agreement.
“I think there is every expectation they will," Lighthizer said of Mexico implementing the new labor standards, "but I think we want to plus up in discussions with members some procedures that will make sure in the years ahead we can continue to make sure they follow the rules.”
But he has also signaled a willingness to work on ways to ensure companies in Mexico comply with labor standards.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have proposed a side agreement that would provide additional labor enforcement personnel, require compliance audits and raise tariffs on companies that violate collective bargaining rights.
During a Senate Finance hearing on Tuesday, Lighthizer told a Democratic senator who pressed him on the Brown-Wyden proposal that he has “every expectation that we will come to a conclusion that will be satisfactory with you.”
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