Lawmaker interest in NAFTA intensifies amid Trump moves

Lawmaker interest in NAFTA intensifies amid Trump moves
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The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has never been more popular on Capitol Hill.

The three-nation trade agreement that has long come under fire from both parties is getting a rousing defense amid a push from the Trump administration to either renegotiate or scrap the deal altogether.

Business advocates of the 24-year-old deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico say lawmakers have become significantly more interested in the pact recently amid talks to update the deal despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpFamily immigration detention centers could be at capacity within days: report Trump likely to meet with Putin in July: report DOJ requests military lawyers to help prosecute immigration crimes: report MORE’s threats to withdraw from the agreement.

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Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with a growing number of lawmakers, are urging the White House to finish updating the deal and resist any urge to withdraw from the agreement.

John Murphy, senior vice president for international policy at the Chamber, said he was surprised during this week’s NAFTA lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill at how much lawmakers have ratcheted up their engagement in the past few months.

“It has been a sea change since last October,” Murphy said.

Murphy said that the consensus on Capitol Hill is to update the deal and avoid so-called poison pills that could doom the pact.

“They are strongly supportive of modernizing the agreement and lawmakers are pushing back against unconventional approaches that would reduce trade and push production offshore,” Murphy said.

The Chamber had about 150 business representatives who visited a mix of 280 Republican and Democratic House offices.

Last fall, the Chamber warned that several of the U.S. proposals could torpedo the entire deal and they urged the Trump administration to “do no harm” as negotiations continue.

The seventh round of NAFTA talks are slated to begin Feb. 25 and run through March 5 in Mexico City.

Christine Bliss, president of the Coalition of Services Industries, said she was pleased with what she heard during her visits to lawmakers’ offices recently.

“Members increasingly seem to understand that NAFTA has a positive impact on jobs and growth in their districts. It’s really resonating,” she said.

Bliss, whose group represents a broad spectrum of businesses from insurance and banking to telecommunications and logistics, said the surge of support and attention to the NAFTA deal is “a very welcome change and noticeable from where we were.”

She said the voices of support are growing louder on the Hill, helping to drown out Trump’s regular calls to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement.

“We’ve been trying to drive the message home and it does seem to be getting through,” she said.

As negotiations continue, business groups insist that threatening to leave the deal is not the best approach for the Trump administration to reach a revised agreement.

“It’s not smart negotiating strategy. You don’t want to make that argument trading partners can use against you,” Bliss said.

The services sector, which is about 80 percent of the nation’s economy, totals $88 billion in exports to Mexico and Canada combined.

The U.S. has a $24 billion trade surplus in services with Canada and a $7.5 billion surplus with Mexico. Overall, the U.S. services sector has a $277 billion investment in Canada and Mexico that amounts to 600,000 high-paying services jobs here, Bliss noted.

Meanwhile, the U.S. maintains a $71.1 billion annual trade deficit for goods with Mexico and $17.6 billion deficit with Canada, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Lawmakers have shown a renewed interest in NAFTA in recent months.

Ahead of Trump’s first State of the Union address last month, 36 Senate Republicans wrote a letter urging him to complete negotiations.

Meetings between Trump, lawmakers and U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerMcConnell urges GOP senators to call Trump about tariffs Companies brace for trade war MORE have also ramped up in recent weeks.

At a White House meeting with Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday, Lighthizer insisted that the administration was making progress on NAFTA.

“There was a lot of anxiety at one point as to whether or not we'd be in a position where we would have to withdraw in order to get a good agreement,” he acknowledged.

The nation’s top trade official built a case for bipartisan support of the agreement instead of leaving the deal. He said he hoped to gain the support of about two dozen Senate Democrats as well as a large number of Democrats in the House.

“I want it to be an agreement that the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats support,” he said.

Lighthizer argued that NAFTA has not served the United States well in all respects. 

“It has served some people very well, but other people and overall it has not done a good job,” he said.

“I think we're making real headway. We have a number of issues that we still have to work our way through, but I'm hopeful that we'll be in the position — I think that's most important — to get a good deal, one that you'll find acceptable."

As the Trump administration has kept the specter of a withdrawal hovering over the NAFTA talks, lawmakers have turned their focus to arguing that abandoning the deal would hurt economic growth, cut into stock market gains and cost jobs.

In another recent White House meeting, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchOn The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Senators hammers Ross on Trump tariffs | EU levies tariffs on US goods | Senate rejects Trump plan to claw back spending Senators hammer Ross over Trump tariffs Top Finance Dem wants panel to investigate Trump Foundation MORE (R-Utah), whose committee oversees trade, said lawmakers had “underscored that preserving NAFTA is vital for the millions of Americans whose jobs depend on trade in North America, and that weakening the agreement would jeopardize American economic growth.”

While Democrats and Republicans might have different ideas on how an updated NAFTA agreement would look, most are supportive of remaining in the deal.

In fact, a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Rep. Dave ReichertDavid (Dave) George ReichertGOP super PAC targets House districts with new M ad buys Lawmakers reach deal on bill to crack down on synthetic opioid imports GOP lawmakers back discharge petition to force immigration votes MORE (R-Wash.), chair of a the House Ways and Means Committee trade subcommittee, made the trip to the sixth round of NAFTA talks held recently in Montreal, urging the U.S. to remain at the table.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — GOP lawmakers race to find an immigration fix Warren to put hold on Trump consumer bureau nominee Stop labeling babies as 'born addicted' — it stigmatizes them and is inaccurate MORE (D-Ohio) said Democrats would support NAFTA if it is “written in a way that supports workers, as I'm confident it will be.”

“It will be bipartisan if done right. And that's my reputation and that's what I'll continue to fight for,” Brown told Trump, vowing to bring other Democrats on board.