Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump are both keen on strengthening the ties between their respective countries, but a comprehensive trade pact that slashes tariffs on ag commodities, farm machinery and other goods and services isn’t likely in the near future because of Democratic opposition, says U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

“We have a lot going on right now, but I would say a (free trade agreement) right now is probably not in the cards,” Lighthizer said Tuesday during the second day of a two-day virtual event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “If you’re going to move forward with an FTA, the first thing you have to do is consult with the Congress and go through a House and Senate process where you … have to get bipartisan support. And the reality is there is no support for an FTA in the Democratic Party in the United States at this time.”

One of the first people Lighthizer would have to meet with before starting FTA negotiations with Brazil is House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., head of the panel’s trade subcommittee, and they are making their opposition clear.

“President Jair Bolsonaro’s abysmal record on human rights, the environment, and corruption are why Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee have long opposed a trade agreement or expanded economic partnership with Brazil,” Blumenauer said in a statement released Tuesday after the USTR unveiled a series of agreements to improve trading and investment conditions between the two countries.

Richard Neal

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass.

The new protocols update the decade-old Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation between the two countries, and officials from both the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations hailed it as a major step toward a full-blown FTA between the two countries.

“From their first meetings, President Trump and President Bolsonaro have shared a vision for a prosperity partnership between the United States and Brazil and a desire for new trade initiatives,” Lighthizer said. “Today’s protocol uses the existing ATEC to establish common standards for the two countries on efficient customs procedures, transparent regulatory development, and robust anti-corruption policies that will create a strong foundation for closer economic ties between our two countries,” said Lighthizer.

But Neal took it as a slap in the face.

“With this trade deal, the Trump administration has circumvented Congress to reward a Brazilian administration that lacks respect for basic human rights, the environment, and its own workers,” the Democratic Ways and Means Committee chairman said. “Giving President Bolsonaro ammunition to claim that the United States endorses his behavior sullies our nation’s reputation as a country that demands our trade partners respect human rights and the rule of law.”

Neal, Blumenauer and 22 other Democrats — many of whom worked with Lighthizer to amend the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement — signed on to a letter to the USTR in early June to castigate the Trump administration for beginning talks on the new protocol that was released Tuesday.

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“Through reprehensible rhetoric and actions, the Bolsonaro government in Brazil has demonstrated its complete disregard for basic human rights, the need to protect the Amazon rainforest, the rights and dignity of workers, and a record of anticompetitive economic practices,” the Democrats wrote in the letter.

Darin LaHood

Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill.

Lighthizer may have given up on getting House Democrats to support an FTA, but Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., co-chairman of the House Brazil Caucus, said he has faith. Lighthizer, LaHood said, worked with Democrats and their demands for USMCA to produce a trade pact that eventually won widespread support and passed in the House by a wide margin.

“A lot of that credit goes to Ambassador Lighthizer and his ability to work across those party lines to get people on board,” LaHood said.

Also, there are Brazilian lawmakers who are not in the same political party as Bolsonaro, but support an FTA with the U.S., and they need to reach out to Neal and other House Democrats, LaHood said.

“I’m not saying it’s going to turn out exactly the way USMCA did, but it’s a good template to move forward,” he said.

And Lighthizer himself has not completely written off the possibility of starting up FTA negotiations with Brazil early next year. In the “best case scenario,” he said, the Trump administration was “always looking at this to be something we could do at the beginning of a second term and we’ll see where we are when that time comes.”

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