House Democrats are poring over a letter from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on proposed fixes for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal said Thursday he’s preparing a response to send back Thursday or Friday.

“It’s clear that we’re making headway,” Neal told reporters Thursday, but also stressed that he’s not satisfied with the document sent from Lighthizer aimed at addressing House Democrats’ concerns with the revamped North American Free Trade Agreement.

A House vote after Democrats are satisfied could happen this year, but certainly not this month as many in Washington and farm country had hoped.

“I feel very confident that (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi will put it to a vote … this year,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who noted that he has been working this week with Pelosi to sound out Mexican officials on the government’s ability to enact meaningful labor reform in the country.

Mexico passed major labor reform, giving workers access to nongovernment unions and the potential for higher wages, as was required in USMCA, but many House Democrats do not trust Mexico to follow through. The primary goal of the reform, in the eyes of lawmakers, is to cut down on the massive pool of cheap labor in Mexico that drives U.S. companies to relocate factories there.

Pelosi, Neal and others have made it clear that they want stronger enforcement measures for Mexican labor and environment reforms as well as other changes to USMCA. But labor reform enforcement is the biggest ticket item, and Neal told reporters Wednesday that he’s not satisfied with Lighthizer’s proposal in the document he received.

“The one that still appears stubborn is labor enforcement,” Neal said. “It’s important to acknowledge there’s been progress and we’re zeroing in on a handful of issues and one of them is enforcement, enforcement, enforcement.”

Another major issue is the means that Lighthizer will agree to address labor enforcement. House Democrats have been saying for months that they want a new provision added to the core text of USMCA,

One GOP lawmaker briefed by Lighthizer this week said the USTR is opposed to changing the text of USMCA, something that would potentially open it up to other requests for changes and require all three countries to again sign off on it.

But Neal stressed to reporters Thursday that he does not think a bilateral U.S.-Mexico side letter — a provision that could be simply attached to the existing pact — will suffice.

“I’m suspect of side letters because I think if you look at the history of side letters in trade, that’s where there’s been some weakness … so I’m circumspect in embracing the idea of side letters,” Neal said.

Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on Ways and Means, said he supports the Democrats’ demand for strong enforcement and projected enthusiastic optimism that USMCA will be ratified this year.

“The good news here is that Democrats … are looking thoughtfully at this proposal,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of common ground there.”

Brady and several other lawmakers and farm group leaders gathered on the National Mall Thursday for an event to pressure Congress to act quickly on USMCA.

“Restoring certainty to our trade relationships and bolstering the prospects for dairy exports by passing USMCA will bring important benefits to the dairy farmers and rural economies that rely on these export markets,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation.

Ben Nuelle contributed to this story

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