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Lobbyists gear up for critical year on trade
K Street is bracing for a hectic 2019 on trade issues as lobbyists field questions from clients about what's next.
There will be a flurry of activity in the weeks ahead. President Trump is ratcheting up pressure on Congress to pass the revised trade deal with Mexico and Canada. The administration will also be pushing ahead on trade talks with China. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a 90-day ceasefire on any new tariffs in December, but tensions are rising over other issues such as intellectual property (IP) theft.
Lobbyists are working to sort through the conflicting messages from the White House and Congress on trade.
Here are the top trade issues K Street will be watching in the coming year.
New NAFTA deal
The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, also known as the USMCA, was signed in November to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, a win for Trump, who has long railed against the trade deal. The new agreement has set off a scramble as lobbyists try to figure out what the changes mean.
But it is unclear when Congress will take it up, with many Republicans raising concerns about the deal.
"It's the most high-profile, it's the most immediate. It's, in some respects, the most interesting," Brian Pomper, partner at Akin Gump and co-leader of the firm's public law and policy practice, told The Hill about the trade questions facing K Street.
"The question is whether the two sides, being the Democratic leadership and the White House, are going to be able to negotiate something that will allow USMCA to pass through Congress," he added.
The clock is ticking for Trump.
"The withdrawal notice ripens after six months, after which the president can formally withdraw. It's not automatic after six months," Pomper added.
Experts, though, expect Congress to take up the trade measure in early 2019.
Myron Brilliant , the head of international affairs at the Chamber of Commerce, said it will be an early priority for lawmakers.
"This would be the top 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 for Congress," he told The Hill.
But K Street is watching closely with uncertainty over what will happen under a Democratic House and with a new populist leader in Mexico.
"The back-and-forth we may see between Dems, not to mention the countries ... could get messy," Alex Vogel, Brian Johnson and Samir Kapadia from the Vogel Group's trade team, told The Hill.
K Street is already anticipating the resumption of U.S., China trade talks in January.
The Vogel Group said Trump's efforts to craft a trade deal with China is on the top of the list of trade issues to watch.
"China. China. China ... Both in terms of the current 90-day window - and the broader impact in terms of things affected by how that goes - like Huawei," the group told The Hill.
Brilliant said he's been getting questions on how the two countries can "work through the challenging issues" ahead in a 90-day negotiation period.
K Street is also worried about the broader fallout from the talks.
"Beyond the core trade issues, how do these negotiations that are going on impact the trade relationship as well?" Brilliant asked.
Trump and Xi stepped back from the escalating trade war in December, agreeing to hold off on new tariffs. But whether negotiators can make substantial progress before the 90-day window ends remains to be seen. There are a host of contentious issues complicating the talks, including U.S. allegations of IP theft against China and the controversy over Huawei.
Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who has been accused of violating trade sanctions against Iran and is facing extradition to the U.S. In retaliation, China has detained two Canadian citizens, raising tensions.
Chinese telecom firms like Huawei have faced scrutiny over their potential risks to national security. The issue also has the attention of the highest levels in both the U.S. and Chinese governments, with Trump also saying he could personally intervene to resolve the standoff.
Those remarks though sparked alarm in Congress, where lawmakers want Trump to crack down on Chinese firms.
K Street is also working to help clients negotiate the process for seeking exemptions from tariffs.
"The brand-new process for filing exemptions with Commerce and USTR [U.S. Trade Representative] will be center stage for many companies still seeking to reconcile their global supply chain and tariff cost management," the Vogel Group said.
The stakes are high for U.S. companies looking to avoid new costs. And there is also pressure on the administration to ensure that the process goes smoothly.
"How fast will Commerce and USTR act with this new process?," is a top question for businesses and K Street, according to the Vogel Group.
Brexit and Europe
The Trump administration is pushing ahead on trade talks with Europe even as the continent grapples with complicated Brexit negotiations.
American businesses have high hopes for the talks.
"Companies hope negotiations will lead to new commercial opportunities for American business and the workforce" Brilliant said.
"The success of U.S.-EU negotiations depends on making sure progress is made to lower existing barriers, updating rules to govern new streams of commerce, and finding ways to strengthen regulatory cooperation in our bilateral relationship."
The talks come at a critical time for both Trump's trade agenda and Europe's.
"Europe is struggling with the Brexit negotiations and other challenges," said Brilliant. "We have a significant stake in solidifying our commercial relationship with Europe as a whole including the U.K."
But generally there is optimism on K Street for bridging the trade issues between the U.S. and Europe.
"Right now K Street has some comfort in that the [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] base text will be a good template for the U.S.-EU talks to start from," Johnson said.
Clients are pressing lobbyists with questions about Brexit.
Trump has questioned the deal British Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated with Europe, claiming it could make it more difficult to negotiate a U.S.-U.K. trade deal in the future. But even though May is struggling to get that deal through Parliament, some on K Street are already looking ahead.
"Much of this focus is really around the U.S.-U.K. pending FTA," Johnson said, referring to the prospects for a Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and the U.K.
Intellectual property enforcement
The Trump administration is working to crack down on Chinese espionage. Federal officials told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month that it is a top national and economic security threat to the U.S.
Protecting intellectual property is nothing new for businesses.
"Protection of intellectual property in China has been a top priority for American businesses for decades," Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President for Asia Charles Freeman told The Hill.
"Many businesses have experienced intellectual property theft in China and other markets from competitors, former employees, and criminal third parties. We are supportive of efforts to protect IP, wherever held, from theft by whatever source."
Changes, though, need to be global and come from the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Vogel Group said. "The broader focus on this has to do with larger WTO reforms on this issue and how the global community can help enforce this."
IP enforcement will be a top priority in the U.S.-China trade talks.
In a Nov. 30 CNN Business op-ed, Brilliant said a successful meeting between Trump and Xi should result in China addressing "long-standing areas of concern, such as intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer, or the practice of requiring that foreign companies share their technology to do business in China."