The meeting comes at a pivotal moment for the USMCA’s fate, with Pelosi earlier Thursday declaring that a deal between Democrats and the Trump administration is “imminent.”
A group of nine House Democrats has been meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer since late June in an effort to strike a compromise deal that would fix the party’s concerns with the pact’s labor, environmental, enforcement and prescription drug provisions — and clear the way for the pact to get a vote.
Members who attended the meeting emerged less than confident that the two sides would reach a deal in the next few days, but they stressed that talks are nearing an end and a vote this year is still possible.
Pelosi said Thursday she would like to see the trade agreement pass the House this year — a timeline that matches the Trump administration’s goal.
More than a dozen of the most vulnerable Democrats — mainly freshmen — used the meeting to stress the pact’s importance in their districts, Cuellar said. Some moderates feared a backlash from progressives but it ultimately did not materialize in the room, according to several people.
“I have to hand it to them. They were very forceful,” Cuellar said, adding that he urged a lot of USMCA supporters to speak up in the meeting. “I think it’s going to give us … momentum.”
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), a member of the USMCA working group, acknowledged that some Democrats are becoming increasingly vocal about passing the deal soon, but he cautioned that it’s most important that they get a strongly enforceable deal.
“They want it done now, but they also understand that it has to have the right enforcement,” Gomez said. “If not, it’s going to be something that haunts them for the rest of their careers.”
Some have privately acknowledged that USMCA becomes even more important for GOP-leaning districts as the House moves closer toward impeachment. In recent weeks, Republicans have stepped up their attacks on Democrats as a party more focused on impeachment than policy issues. Passing the trade agreement is seen as a way to push back on that argument.
The push during the caucus meeting marks the latest sign of moderate House members growing agitated over the lack of movement to get the deal passed. The 48-member House Problem Solvers Caucus, comprised of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, issued a statement earlier Thursday calling for a “timely vote” on the deal.
“For the good of the American people, and a strong economy … both sides of the aisle should find a way to unite together behind passage of USMCA,” the caucus said.
Even with renewed momentum, the window for getting the deal passed by year’s end is small, with only 13 legislative days left this session before the House is scheduled to head home for the holidays. And progressives and moderates within the party remain starkly divided over some of the core issues of the agreement, such as updated labor standards and its overall enforceability.
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, who has been leading Democrats’ talks with the Trump administration to try to negotiate changes to the pact, said after the caucus meeting Thursday that some labor issues are still outstanding and remain the focus of continued talks with Lighthizer.
“You’ve got to make sure that we’ve got a broad, broad alliance of labor” backing the deal, Neal (D-Mass.) told reporters.
Support from organized labor is crucial to generating enough support among Democrats to get the deal over the finish line, in part because House leadership wants to see at least a significant portion of the caucus on board before they call the pact up for a vote.
Despite months of work on the issue — and changes that Neal and others have said already mark an improvement from the original NAFTA — progressive members say they are still not convinced they’re ready to back USMCA.
“I’m voting no, from what I’ve seen,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a labor-friendly Democrat with a strong interest in trade issues, told POLITICO after the caucus meeting. “It’s not good enough.”
Pascrell was one of only two progressives who spoke out against the calls for a vote during the meeting, according to a person in the room. The other was Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a longtime trade skeptic and a member of the working group.
But after the meeting, Schakowsky struck a more optimistic note, saying she believes a deal can be wrapped up this year. But she added that she wants members to end up with a deal “we can all be proud of.”
“I think we can get there,” the Illinois Democrat said, “but those who are anxious just to move for something need to think about the necessity for getting it right.”