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Administration puts House on notice for a pre-August NAFTA vote

But top Democrats say they won’t be rushed in negotiations over new trade deal

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, right, and House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal talk in February before a hearing on U.S.-China trade relations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, right, and House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal talk in February before a hearing on U.S.-China trade relations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Trump administration on Thursday gave Congress a 30-day notice of its intent to send lawmakers implementing legislation for a vote on the proposed trade pact that would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The draft statement of administration action is required under Trade Promotion Authority and signals President Donald Trump plans to push for votes on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement before the August recess.

Two key House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, said the notification would not affect their efforts to negotiate with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for changes to the USMCA.

The administration will need Democratic votes to win approval of the agreement even with a majority of House Republicans voting for it. Pelosi’s ultimate leverage is her decision about whether the implementing legislation and the agreement meet the requirements for an up-or-down vote under Trade Promotion Authority. She and other Democrats have repeatedly reminded the administration that in 2007, Pelosi slowed House consideration of a trade agreement President George W. Bush sent to Congress. Democrats used that delay to negotiate changes after that decision.

Pelosi said the arrival of the notification before resolution of concerns about enforcement of labor and environmental provisions and provisions giving drug companies a 10-year pricing monopoly “indicates a lack of knowledge on the part of the Administration on the policy and process to pass a trade agreement.”

Sending the notification now, Pelosi said, “is not a positive step. Democrats have continued to work productively and with great respect for Ambassador Lighthizer around the priorities of labor standards to defend the jobs and wages of American workers, lower prescription drug costs and meaningful environmental protections.”

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Neal said in a separate statement that Democrats will not be rushed by the administration.

“The timeline for the consideration of a renegotiated NAFTA will be determined by the completion of the work that remains to be done by Democrats and Ambassador Lighthizer to address these concerns,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “The premature submission of a draft statement of administrative action has no impact on that outstanding work or the timeline moving forward.”

Lighthizer in a cover letter to Pelosi sought to assure her that negotiations will continue.

“By completing this procedural step at this time, however, we ensure that Congress will have sufficient time to consider the USMCA before the August recess if the leadership deems that appropriate,” he wrote.

He sent over a package with placeholders for potential changes. The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office did not release the material, saying it is text under discussion with Congress.

The action comes the same day that Vice President Mike Pence flew to the Ottawa, Canada, to speak with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the Canadian legislation moving quickly to ratify the agreement. Trudeau introduced legislation Wednesday in the House of Commons. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced Thursday that he was sending implementing legislation to the Mexican Senate.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, praised the proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as a boon for business and said the Democrat-controlled House should move quickly for a vote once the implementing legislation arrives.

“Congress should work together with the Administration to approve this important trade agreement without delay,” McCarthy said.

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