Democratic lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol say the Trump administration has failed to satisfy concerns they’ve raised for months about the new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, threatening to sink the president’s top legislative priority.
Pressure from the White House for Congress to vote on the deal has been increasing as the time window for a vote closes. But Democrats say there is little appetite among members of their party to move forward until the administration makes changes surrounding enforcement of the replacement deal for NAFTA, among other issues.
Story Continued Below
“I don’t think they have close to enough votes,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has led the charge in the Senate in pressing for stronger labor standards and enforcement. “They’ve got a lot to do still.”
In some respects, the environment for lawmakers to consider passing the deal is far friendlier than it was earlier this month, before Congress took a two-week recess that ended Monday. The U.S. International Trade Commission completed and released a mandatory report on the economic impact of the agreement, which cleared one major milestone, and Mexico on Tuesday passed a landmark labor reform law required by the new pact.
But the procedural steps forward mean little as long as Democrats remain unsatisfied. Members of the Trump administration have repeatedly said they will not send the deal to Congress until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asks for it. And congressional aides, meanwhile, emphasize that the speaker will not indicate she’s ready to accept the deal unless she feels she has a significant portion of her caucus on board.
As the legislative window for getting the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement done this year narrows, the White House is amping up pressure on Pelosi to change her tune.
“If Nancy Pelosi put it on the floor for a vote, it would pass overwhelmingly and bipartisan,” White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Tuesday at a conference in Beverly Hills. “But she controls the floor, and if it doesn’t come up for a vote, it’s not going to see the light of day.”
There do appear to be some signs that the Trump administration recognizes Democrats’ concerns and is open to making some changes in order to win their support. In a meeting at the White House Tuesday between Trump and a handful of Democratic lawmakers, which was supposed to be focused on infrastructure, “the No. 1 subject that he went off-topic on was USMCA,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“They were very eager to figure out what we needed to pass it,” Schumer said, adding that lawmakers emphasized the need for labor and environmental protections and tweaks to pharmaceutical provisions.
Others who attended the meeting said they left with a greater sense of optimism that the White House is looking to work with them on getting the deal across the finish line.
“I sensed at the White House today that there was a bit more enthusiasm for moving it along,” Richard Neal, chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters. “I was pretty clear on the idea that I thought they had to continue to negotiate with labor — all of which, by the way, they were receptive to.”
There is not, however, any agreement on how issues Democrats have outlined can be resolved. Some lawmakers are continuing to call for the deal itself to be reopened and reworked — a notion administration officials have repeatedly shot down. Mexican and Canadian officials have also dismissed calls to revisit the terms of the deal.
Vice President Mike Pence last week dismissed the idea of fully reopening the deal, but he did appear to recognize that some changes would need to be made in order to generate support for the deal and said the administration was “speaking with members of Congress in both parties” about the implementing legislation.
“There’ll be some give-and-take in that,” he said.
In an attempt to move things along on Capitol Hill, White House officials have begun some “organized outreach” to congressional Republicans who are likely to provide the majority of the votes if and when the deal does come the floor. The early whip count effort is aimed at “making sure they have support lined up among Republican members and making sure they understand which members might have problems,” a source closely following the discussions told POLITICO.
The goal is to be able to determine exactly how many Democrats the White House will need to back the deal, the source said. But Democratic lawmakers, such as Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), have indicated that Democrats want to reach a final deal that can garner support from a large chunk of the caucus.
The deal is also facing roadblocks from some Republicans, who want Trump to first lift tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Canada and Mexico. Senior members from both parties have for months emphasized that those duties — as well as the retaliatory penalties the two countries have imposed on U.S. goods in response — are hurting American farmers, manufacturers and businesses. That’s canceling out any benefits the trade deal itself might bring.
Despite pledges to remove the tariffs once a deal was negotiated, the Trump administration hasn’t made any changes. Republicans have grown increasingly direct in their calls to remove the duties, with Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley writing in an op-ed this week that “if these tariffs aren’t lifted, USMCA is dead.”
“It’s common sense. It has to happen,” the Iowa Republican told POLITICO Tuesday. “Otherwise, (the deal) isn’t coming up.”
Sabrina Rodriguez and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.