Moderates Seen As Key to Ratifying U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Deal

September 6, 2019 by Dan McCue
President Donald J. Trump congratulates U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer as he delivers remarks on the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) in the Rose Garden at the White House on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Pete Marovich/Abaca Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON – As Congress adjourned for its August recess, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, known as the USMCA, seemed to be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

At the time, an impending fiscal crisis had just been averted, and lawmakers, media and the American public, quite frankly, all needed time to step back and take a deep breath.

But it would be mistaken to assume the rewrite of the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement simply hung in limbo.

For instance, members of Farmers for Free Trade, a bipartisan coalition of agriculture commodity groups, traveled 16,000 miles by RV in August, visiting state fairs to build support for the agreement and ramp up pressure on key Democrats in hopes of a House vote in early fall.

And Rick Dearborn, executive director of the Pass USMCA Coalition, a group of trade associations and businesses advocating for the swift passage of the agreement, said they were far from alone.

“I think if you looked in town halls, the local Cracker Barrel restaurant and in plants of all kinds across the country, it would have been easy to find some organization talking to a member of Congress, trying to educate them about all the positive impacts of USMCA,” said Dearborn, who until March 2018 was President Trump’s deputy chief of staff.

“If you think about it, there are a lot of freshmen members of the House, especially freshmen Democrats, who won in formerly Republican districts that were carried by Trump in 2016,” he said.

“I have no doubt they were hearing from their constituents from the moment they got home to their districts, people who were trying to educate them, telling them they want to try to get a deal done on USMCA,” Dearborn added.

“Now, with everybody coming back to Washington this week, you better believe the House leadership is pulsing its membership, seeing where they stand on a number of issues. I’m hopeful that all the good work our coalition and so many others have done have kind of set the table for a good September and October as far as the trade deal is concerned,” he said.

Others are even more confident.

Congress has “enough votes to do it right now,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue is a series of television interviews earlier this week.

Donohue went so far as to tell Fox Business that a deal on USMCA will be done in the “September timeframe.”

But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., warned against being too optimistic last week telling reporters there is no deadline for a vote on the USMCA at this point, “but the closer we get to the next election, the harder it is.

“Speaker Pelosi and I am united in that we believe you need strong and enforceable labor protections in this bill,” said Schumer, highlighting his demands for environmental and labor protections and changes related to prescription drugs. “If that doesn’t happen, there won’t be a bill, plain and simple.”

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which has been meeting with representatives of Pelosi to work out their differences, did not respond to a request for comment.

“Obviously, the timing of any vote on USMCA is going to be up to the leadership,” said Dearborn, who prior to his White House gig was executive director of the Trump Presidential Transition Team and previously served 12 years as chief of staff to then- Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Speaker Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, you’re not going to bring a vote to the floor until you have some sense of how the vote is going to go and where your votes are,” he said.

“So the first thing that’s going to happen, in the House, is that Pelosi is going to have her leadership team pulse the entire caucus and see where her members are,” he continued. “I think movement on a deal will follow, and then we’ll see the scheduling of a vote.”

Dearborn then went on to suggest that it’ll be moderate Democrats who will not only push for the vote, but will also determine the fate of the USMCA.

“They are the power in Congress,” he said. “I mean, I know the press likes to write about “the squad” and some of the more flamboyant freshman members of Congress, but the larger number of new members that the speaker has are from congressional districts the president won by 10, 12, 15 or 20 points in 2016.

“These folks need to have something to hang their hat on when the go back to their district and run for reelection next fall,” Dearborn continued. “They can’t hang their hat on a bunch of their colleagues doing a bunch of investigations and going down rabbit holes, leading nowhere. I mean, they have to have some kind of tangible accomplishment they can point to, and for many of them, passage of USMCA would be a very big accomplishment.”

But Dearborn and other supporters of USMCA are leaving nothing to chance. If anything, the “education” of members of Congress is only going to be more intense starting this week, he said.

“We’ll have a lot of fly-ins from members of our coalition and I know other organizations are going to do the same thing, and what you’re going to see are actual factory workers and plant managers and small business owners … women … all hitting the halls of Congress and going in to see their representative,” Dearborn explained.

“And of course, we’ll be doing briefings for the members of the House, freshman Democrats and any other interested members. Obviously, we think we have a very positive story to tell, one we think the members will intuitively understand and embrace.

“Once they show signs of that to leadership, Speaker Pelosi will have to figure out how she wants to schedule a vote on it, and whether it will be sooner rather than later,” Dearborn said.

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