The Democratic presidential primary is becoming a big problem for what would be President Donald Trump’s premier bipartisan achievement.
The leading White House contenders are amping up their opposition to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement, which has been stalled for months. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi is showing no signs of bending without major changes to tilt the agreement to the left.
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As the 2020 race heats up and consideration of Trump’s NAFTA replacement gets delayed further, the odds it can pass Congress will only shrink. Particularly if her party’s standard bearer opposes the deal along with her caucus’ progressive wing, Pelosi will be in no mood to give Trump a win.
“A Democratic president’s going to have different values than this president about trade. Very different values,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) in an interview. “I can tell you that in a Harris administration, there would be no trade deal that would be signed unless it protected American workers and it protected our environment.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said the trade deal appears “to help the pharmaceutical industry enormously and have very weak labor enforcement” and that no president should pass it. Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager for Sen. Bernie Sanders, said the Vermont independent would seek to “scrap this and fight for one that favors working-class Americans.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden has also sought changes to the trade deal, and Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota each said they oppose the agreement as written, with Klobuchar calling for alterations and Booker saying Trump’s “all bluster on these deals.”
Trump would be sure to tout passage of the USMCA as a major bipartisan achievement, something that’s largely eluded his administration except for a criminal justice overhaul; his victories with Supreme Court nominees and massive tax cuts have been partisan affairs.
“It’s clear Trump doesn’t want to fix this in a way that works for U.S. workers. He wants to fix it politically for himself. And he wants a win and he wants to say it’s a great victory,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who nearly ran for president himself.
Those comments underscore the potentially debilitating intraparty fight that would await Democrats if Pelosi were to put the deal on the House floor.
Pelosi has taken a stern tone on the issue, repeatedly saying that Democrats would not be pushed into considering the deal before the administration has addressed her party’s concerns on enforcement, labor, environmental standards and drug pricing.
While the administration initially hoped to see Congress take up the trade deal before the August recess, any vote is now likely to wait until at least September when Washington is also likely to be consumed by difficult budget negotiations.
The delay is a big worry for GOP leaders who want to give Trump a domestic policy victory in divided government and before the presidential campaign completely takes over.
“As soon as this starts spilling into the fall and next year, it gets much, much harder to get done,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “Times a wastin’ if we don’t get this teed up here pretty soon.”
If the deal were put to a vote on the House floor in its current form, it would very likely fail. And if it did pass, it would be with scant support from the House Democratic majority. The trade-friendly New Democrat coalition, for example, has already told the administration it should not count on support from its 103 members without making changes to the deal.
Nine House Democrats tapped to serve on a trade working group held their latest set of talks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on Thursday, and they emerged from the meeting acknowledging that nothing was resolved.
But despite the lack of progress, the Trump administration has notably not tried to jam Congress. Some administration officials have expressed a desire to put more pressure on Pelosi to consider the deal, but Lighthizer has previously indicated that he will wait for Pelosi’s blessing before sending the legislation to implement the agreement to Capitol Hill.
Lighthizer is well aware that Pelosi has chosen to avoid a divisive trade battle with her party before: After becoming speaker in 2007, she froze President George W. Bush’s trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Congress only passed agreements with those countries after some were renegotiated by the new Democratic President Barack Obama in 2011.
Many Democrats say they should treat this one the same way.
“That would give us a better chance to get the kinds of reforms that we would want in that trade agreement because I don’t look to this president to do anything that’s going to really be fair to unions and working people,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
Even if the House did pass the USMCA, moving it through the Senate would likely require some Democratic support given lingering concerns among some GOP free-traders.
Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can avoid a filibuster under existing fast-track authority, but a few Republicans may oppose the deal. That would put the few pro-trade Democrats in the Senate at odds with some of their presidential candidates and further divide the party.
In an interview, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made clear he did not speak for Pelosi, but said “as of now, unless we have tough labor protections, they’re not going to get it passed.”
Democrats are demanding stronger labor enforcement provisions to the pact, which Pelosi has repeatedly called the “overarching issue.” Democrats are skeptical that Mexico has the capacity and money in place to implement major labor reforms in the tight timeframe it promised.
Democratic concerns also center around the deal’s environmental standards, as well as a provision they say would limit their ability to pass legislation lowering drug prices.
Administration officials are trying to work with Democrats within the tight parameters of the deal, though ultimately it will be up to Trump on whether to accede to the speaker.
So far, the face-to-face meetings with Lighthizer have not resulted in much tangible progress. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal emerged from a Thursday meeting acknowledging that “nothing got settled.”
“It was contentious,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), one of the Democrats on the USMCA working group. “There’s frustration on both sides on the pace of things, but I think we’re having good discussions on just the provisions that the speaker laid out.”
Lawmakers appointed to Pelosi’s working group indicated Thursday that they did not discuss with Lighthizer a timetable to get the deal through the House. Pelosi and Democrats have repeatedly said they will not be rushed into considering the deal — words that irk Trump officials.
The White House, Republicans and pro-USMCA business groups have long hoped to get the deal passed before a month-long August recess to avoid it getting caught up in 2020 politics. But that’s now essentially off the table, with more optimistic supporters saying the deal could get picked up in the fall.
Others say it already looks dead.
“There’s no real public momentum to get [it] done. There’s no ability of the White House to sequence a series of events to get it to passage. And there’s lots of conflicting opinions in Congress,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “Tell me how that ends up in something becoming law.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.