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USMCA bill tough vote for Democrats over lack of environmental protections

Even those who oppose the pact agree it’s a significant improvement over predecessor

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., attends a press conference to discuss climate change on Sept. 17, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., attends a press conference to discuss climate change on Sept. 17, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Jeff Merkley faced a difficult vote Tuesday as he joined colleagues on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to advance the bill that would implement President Donald Trump’s new trade deal.

The Oregon Democrat said the pact does not go far enough to protect the environment and address the urgency of climate change. He lamented what he called problematic provisions, including “special protections” for fossil fuel companies. But, he approved of its labor protections and voted in favor of advancing the deal. 

As the bill that would make the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement law makes its way through different Senate committees, Democrats appear to be grappling with a difficult choice: voting for a deal that falls short of the environmental protections they want, but perhaps offers the most concessions they could have extracted in a Republican-led trade pact.

On Tuesday, Democrats on the environment panel committee broke with environmental groups and joined with their GOP colleagues to vote 16-4 to advance the bill. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., voted against moving the deal forward.

“Every major environmental organization is in opposition to this treaty and they have a list of reasons why,” Merkley said after the vote. “We should have heard from them and considered their points of view.”

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The Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and Natural Resources Defense Council sent a letter in December to lawmakers urging them to reject the terms of the USMCA because it “fails to meet the baseline standards for environmental and climate protection that the environmental community has consistently called for.”

The deal, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, contains a number of environmental provisions and Democrats — even those who opposed it — said it’s a significant improvement over its predecessor.

‘Terrible, horrible and no good′

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the bill easily wins the record as most improved on environmental matters, but it wins the ‘most improved’ award off the baseline of terrible, horrible and no good, which has been the history of these trade agreements under Democratic and Republican administrations alike,” Whitehouse said Tuesday.

He also voted against the bill at the Finance Committee last week.

“We’re now at a point where I don’t believe improvement is the measure; you’re either reaching a measure that will protect us or you’re not, and if you’re not, then I can’t vote for it,” he said, citing recent data showing historically high levels of Earth-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The Senate Budget Committee also moved the bill Tuesday with a voice vote, although Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., asked to be recorded as “no,” and the Senate Finance Committee voted 25-3 to advance the bill last week. 

Harris said she voted against the bill because “the USMCA’s environmental provisions are insufficient — and by not addressing climate change, the USMCA fails to meet the crisis of this moment.”

Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso said the treaty isn’t perfect but is a significant win for American workers and families. 

“The United States already has strong environmental protections,” the Wyoming Republican said. “The agreement does not change those protections or give Washington new authorities to regulate. Instead, the agreement recognizes that our partners should have strong environmental records like we do.“ 

For Democrats, it appeared voting to implement the treaty acknowledged they had to take what they could get from a Republican administration that continues to undo environmental regulations and has said climate change is not among its priorities.

Heating the planet

“It’s just been reported that our planet experienced its second-hottest year on record in 2019. Australia is on fire, the Arctic is melting and our seas are rising,” Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said. “If we were only measuring the new NAFTA by what it does to address climate change, it doesn’t work; plain and simple.”

Still, he said it was an improvement from NAFTA on climate issues, including treating environmental violations as trade violations.

“New NAFTA adds important tools and resources that were negotiated by Democrats to strengthen the agreement, hold the Administration accountable to enforce NAFTA countries’ environmental obligations, and help ensure that those who break the rules are actually held accountable,” Carper said.

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The movement forward on the trade deal comes as the temperatures shatter yearly records and have been linked to an increase in uncontrollable environmental disasters worldwide, such as the wildfires in Australia. Carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are a big factor and some of the most ardent climate advocates in Congress want U.S. trade deals to serve as a conduit for tougher environmental protections.

“Despite this climate emergency, the USMCA trade deal fails to even mention climate change — the most important issue of our time,” Markey said. It includes “explicit giveaways for the fossil fuel industry, making it cheaper to export dirty tar sands oil and continues giving the gas industry carte blanche to export American gas to Mexico.”

Other Senate committees are also expected to vote on the bill in coming days before a Senate vote and it’s likely passage. The committees cannot amend the bill under the fast track rules through which it is being considered and can only cast an up or down vote.

Markey said he commended the efforts of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, other Democratic ranking members and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka for fighting hard to “make sure the horrible agreement negotiated by President Trump became much better,” including provisions on labor standards. But he said the deal is a “profound” environmental and climate failure.

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