Lawmakers Pressed To Support The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Deal

Apr 3, 2019
Originally published on April 3, 2019 7:22 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There's a political campaign underway on Capitol Hill and on the airwaves in some key congressional districts, but you'd be forgiven if you haven't noticed this. It's a campaign to sell the USMCA. This is the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement - a trade deal meant to replace the 25-year-old NAFTA. At stake is what President Trump hopes will be a key achievement of his presidency. But it won't be ratified without the support of congressional Democrats, many of whom are not sold. Here's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Late last year on the sidelines of an international meeting in Argentina, the leaders of Mexico, Canada and the United States signed the USMCA.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody.

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KEITH: But the trade deal isn't really done until it's ratified by Congress and the legislatures in Canada and Mexico. The next day, flying home on Air Force One, President Trump came back to the press cabin and announced his next move.

TRUMP: I will be formally terminating NAFTA shortly.

KEITH: His strategy - initiate the termination of NAFTA and force Democrats in Congress to ratify the new agreement.

TRUMP: That will be terminated. And so Congress will have a choice of the USMCA or pre-NAFTA, which worked very well.

KEITH: Four months later, President Trump still hasn't terminated NAFTA, and the strategy seems to have changed. Instead of immediately canceling NAFTA and creating a crisis to try and force Democrats' hand, he's now holding it over them as a threat.

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TRUMP: So we have now the USMCA, and it's very good - if the Democrats want to raise their hand. It's a hard thing for them to give us a victory, but let's see if they raise their hand. Otherwise we go to pre-NAFTA. We don't go to NAFTA, we go to pre-NAFTA. That was just OK with me.

KEITH: No trade agreement at all is not OK for a lot of U.S. businesses, which is why coalitions like Trade Works for America aren't relying on the White House alone to get USMCA ratified. The group is running a full-scale political campaign for USMCA

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO "TELL REPRESENTATIVE TIM WALBERG TO VOTE YES ON THE USMC")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Trade powers Michigan's economy. Our automobile...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO "TELL REPRESENTATIVE JOSH HARDER TO VOTE YES ON THE USMCA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Grown in California - that means something...

KEITH: Ads like these are running in some two dozen congressional districts and will eventually expand to 50.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO "TELL REPRESENTATIVE TIM WALBERG TO VOTE YES ON THE USMC")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Call Congressman Tim Walberg and urge him to stand up for Michigan workers and support the USMCA.

KEITH: Phil Cox, who co-chairs the group, has a background running Republican political campaigns, and the coalition just brought on board former Democratic senator from North Dakota Heidi Heitkamp. Cox says his group plans to spend $15 million to $20 million on this push.

PHIL COX: A large percentage of these folks are first-term Democrats. We believe, you know, on the politics that most Republicans will be on board, but our principal challenge is going to be to convince Democrats that this agreement is good for workers and good for the country.

KEITH: The theory of the case is that supporting a trade agreement is a safe bipartisan vote for Democrats elected in 2018 in districts won by President Trump. But the issue isn't just winning over 50 or so House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn't going to bring it up for a vote until she and other Democrats are satisfied that workers and the environment will be better protected in this agreement than they were under NAFTA. Behind the scenes, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is working to win over skeptical Democrats, but they aren't there yet - in part because Democrats are waiting on Mexico to change its labor laws and to see how they enforce them. Pelosi spoke at an event Tuesday sponsored by Politico.

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NANCY PELOSI: The overarching concern that we have is even if you had the best language in the world - in that - if you don't have enforcement, you ain't got nothing.

KEITH: And so the quiet and not so quiet lobbying continues, with a looming question of whether President Trump will return to his original instinct and scrap NAFTA without its replacement in place. It's a move USMCA supporters fear would disrupt careful efforts to get the agreement ratified.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.