President Donald Trump has said there are enough Democratic votes in the House to approve the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and lawmakers like Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, agree, but there are still deep reservations by some over how to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.
There is growing enthusiasm — especially among freshman and younger House Democrats — to bring home a trade win before Christmas, but there are also deep concerns that USMCA still won’t be able to do what NAFTA failed to do: Keep U.S. manufacturers from relocating factories south of the border to take advantage of cheap labor.
It's those concerns that were at the core of a meeting Tuesday between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and freshman House Democrats. One of the lawmakers in the meeting said Pelosi is seeking Democratic solidarity.
"If the stories are that we're breaking apart because of concerns, then (Pelosi) doesn't have the kind of leverage she needs in negotiations," said Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla. The Tuesday meeting was upbeat, Shalala said, and Trumka is working with Pelosi to "get to yes" on a USMCA deal with the White House.
But there is still plenty of opposition in the Democratic ranks.
“If you can’t show me how you’ll stop the hemorrhaging of jobs, it’s a no,” Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., told reporters last week.
Pascrell and others remain deeply suspicious that, despite promises from the White House and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, U.S. companies like General Motors and Goodyear will still be able to set up shop in Mexico and hire nonunion workers for less than $2 an hour.
Mexico’s legislature, following up on promises made in USMCA, has already approved sweeping labor reforms that allow workers to unionize and renegotiate hundreds of thousands of labor contracts that were written under corporate-crafted, union-like organizations.
But many U.S. lawmakers say they won’t be convinced until USMCA is altered to include strong enforcement policy to make sure that Mexico does not backslide on its promises in the years to come.
Trumka, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal tells Agri-Pulse, is in lockstep with House Democrats on pressing the White House to agree to strong labor enforcement measures in USMCA that will ensure Mexico lives up to its promises.
"I think we all feel that the controversies surrounding enforcement have not been helpful to the trade discussions," Neal said. "We believe that by copper-fastening enforcement mechanisms, that will help us get there."
More may be known about the White House's response to the enforcement demands soon. Neal said Tuesday morning he is in contact with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, the Trump administration's point man in talks with House Democrats, and Neal said he planned on conferring with Lighthizer again Tuesday afternoon.
Some House Democrats still want to know more about how the labor provisions will be enforced and some are offering up enthusiastic support, ready to vote ‘yes’ on the trade pact, said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. But others, who are still hurting from the exodus of jobs after NAFTA was implemented 25 years ago, are not going to vote for USMCA.
“There are some who won’t support it under any circumstances,” Costa told Agri-Pulse. “The memories of the fallout of the loss of jobs that were attributed to NAFTA are still very heartfelt.”
And NAFTA is still being blamed by lawmakers and unions for jobs going south of the border. The Goodyear factory in Gadsden, Ala., laid off 175 employees in August and Mickey Ray Williams, president of the United Steelworkers Local 12 in Gadsden, blames NAFTA. Goodyear opened up a factory in San Luis Potosi in 2015 and pays its employees as little as $2 an hour, Williams told Agri-Pulse in an interview.
“We can’t compete with that,” said Williams, who stressed that he’s expecting more layoffs and even fears closure of the Gadsden Goodyear plant where he also works. “At the end of the day, what Goodyear has done is to take our work to Mexico to utilize the cheap Mexican labor.”
Goodyear spokeswoman Melissa Monaco was unavailable for immediate comment Tuesday, but in correspondence earlier this year over conditions at the company factory in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, she said the company is “proud of our record of providing a safe and fulfilling work environment for our associates at our SLP manufacturing facility.”
Still, Williams' sentiment is one that lawmakers are keenly aware of as they consider associating their name with a new version of NAFTA, an acronym that is still reviled by unions.
“Some members want it done now,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., a member of the select working group House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tasked with negotiating Democratic demands with the White House. “I get it. It’s a big issue for their districts. But it has to have the right enforcement. If not, it’s going to be something that haunts them for the rest of their careers.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said she is optimistic that a deal can be reached on USMCA this year, but she also cautioned that speed is not the priority on an issue that could come to define lawmakers that vote for it.
“This is a legacy vote,” she said. “You can talk to people who are still furious about NAFTA from the nineties. When … pushing to get it passed, we need to get it right. It’s not just a matter of it being a bit better than the old NAFTA. It means that we want a … trade deal that can be patterned for future trade deals.”
But there are lawmakers who appear ready now to vote for USMCA.
“We heard from freshman and they said, ‘We want to go home and take something to the public,’” Cuellar said. “We don’t want the American public to feel that Democrats don’t want to pass this trade agreement.”
One of those anxious Democrats throwing their weight behind USMCA is Rep. Cindy Axne, an Iowan with plenty of farmers in her district. She took to the House floor last month to prod House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on speeding up the process of ratifying USMCA.
“They are asking for our help as elected representatives,” she said of the producers in her district. “We must answer their call and get this deal done right and without unnecessary delay. I thank my colleagues for the work that they have done and urge them to expedite negotiations and finalize this agreement soon to make sure we can make lives whole for the people suffering in the state of Iowa and across this country.”
Another Democrat to get out ahead of Pelosi and other Democratic leaders is Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.
“In the House, I’ve continued to push for a vote on the USMCA this year, and I’ve heard directly from our district’s business owners and farmers about the need for movement on this agreement,” she said in a recent statement.
Neal has repeatedly said his goal is to ratify the pact this year, but he also stressed to reporters Thursday that it won’t happen before he’s shown an acceptable deal in writing.
“We want the text,” Neal said, who later added that he hopes to get new proposals in writing this week from Lighthizer.
Lighthizer's expected reply is of crucial importance, said Gomez. As USMCA stands now, without Lighthizer addressing in writing the remaining concerns that labor enforcement mechanisms aren't strong enough, he wouldn't vote for it.
“It seems like we’re moving in the right direction,” said Schakowsky. “We just have seen nothing in writing yet. A deal is just air unless you’ve seen something in writing.”
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