Dems walk Trump trade tightrope

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiVulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Photographer leaves Judiciary hearing after being accused of taking photos of member notes Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices | Senate confirms Trump FDA pick | Trump officials approve Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina MORE (D-Calif.) is walking a tightrope as President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE presses the House to scrap and replace the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA).

Pelosi is in no hurry to help Trump’s reelection campaign, as a trade victory may do.

Yet at the same time, the Speaker is seeking her own legislative victories to lend a messaging boost to vulnerable Democrats also seeking to woo voters — and help Pelosi keep control of the House — at the polls next year.

ADVERTISEMENT

That means finding common ground with Trump on core issues, and trade is one where the sides have some basis of agreement.

Much work remains, however, to secure a deal, and Democrats are threatening to back away unless they win more sway over provisions within the “new NAFTA,” formally known as the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA).

Pelosi and other top Democrats huddled with U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerGOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' Pelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 Pelosi sounds hopeful on new NAFTA deal despite tensions with White House MORE on Wednesday, amplifying their demands that stronger labor, environmental and prescription drug pricing protections be written explicitly into the text of the agreement.

“We made a series of suggestions in there acknowledging improvements, but we also think that there’s a ways to go,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealExpiring tax breaks set off year-end scramble Ways and Means Committee announces rival surprise medical billing fix House panel votes to temporarily repeal SALT deduction cap MORE (D-Mass.).

Democrats are virtually united in their demands, with conservative-leaning Blue Dogs joining liberal lawmakers in insisting on the new protections.

Some of the Democratic demands would require the trade deal to be reopened for talks with Canada and Mexico, something Lighthizer does not want to do.

“I understand, but he's now got Democrats in charge,” Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanHouse passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House panel unveils rival fix for surprise medical bills | Democrats punt vote on youth vaping bill | Pelosi drug bill poised for passage after deal with progressives Pelosi reaches deal with progressives to avert showdown over drug price bill MORE (D-Wis.), a Congressional Progressive Caucus leader, told The Hill, explaining Lighthizer might have to reopen talks to get the deal through Congress.

The wild card may be Trump, whose recent imposition of huge tariffs on China, another key trading partner, has rattled global markets and threatened to hike the cost of goods at home.

The China tariffs are unrelated to the USCMA talks, but they’ve spotlighted what might be the highest barrier to a new deal with Canada and Mexico: Democrats’ lingering distrust in the president.

“Whether it's what's currently going on with China, or you look at the previous agreements, that's why the text in the agreement matters,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), the No. 4 House Democrat. “[The protections] should be put right in. There shouldn't be a question.”

The prospects of winning a deal on the USMCA got a huge boost on Friday, when the administration announced it was lifting import tariffs on steel and aluminum — a major sticking point that had dogged the talks with America’s closest trading partners.

The decision was hailed by business groups, leaders in Canada and Mexico, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but it doesn’t address the labor, environmental and drug protections Democrats are still clamoring for.

“Is it enough to get a new deal over the finish line? Not for me it isn't,” said Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellHouse panel votes to temporarily repeal SALT deduction cap On The Money: Pelosi, Trump tout deal on new NAFTA | McConnell says no trade vote until impeachment trial wraps up | Lawmakers push spending deadline to Thursday House panel to consider temporarily repealing SALT deduction cap MORE (D-N.J.). “Any new NAFTA won't get my support until enforcement of strong labor standards can be assured."

Altering the text of the agreement would require signoff from all three countries. In Lighthizer, Democrats see a straight-shooting negotiator, but without the changes, the agreement will likely never see a vote on the House floor.

“He's going to see what he can do to accommodate. One of his major obstacles is the pledge not to open it for any tweaks or any reform or any renegotiation. And that becomes a stumbling block,” said Rep. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindCongressional authority in a time of Trump executive overreach Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny Alcohol industry races to save tax break by year-end deadline MORE (D-Wis.).

“The Speaker's not going to bring a trade bill to the floor that deeply divides our caucus; she won't do that,” he added.

Reworking previously negotiated trade deals is not unheard of. The George W. Bush administration won trade deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama, but none made it through Congress before the end of Bush’s presidency. The Obama administration then renegotiated the pacts to accommodate concerns from Democrats and industry groups.

Overhauling NAFTA seems to have even more widespread appeal. Many Democrats have long called for revamping the Clinton-era agreement, arguing that it has shortchanged American workers. Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellProgressives hopeful for deal with Pelosi to avert showdown on drug prices Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA Pelosi gets standing ovation at Kennedy Center Honors MORE (D-Mich.) cited a steel plant in her Detroit-area district that has been empty for decades.

“That's happened because of this kind of stuff. So we've got to figure out the right way,” Dingell said.

The discussions between Pelosi and the administration highlight the dual track Democrats are navigating in their approach to a president who is anathema to their liberal base. On one hand, Democrats have launched a series of aggressive investigations seeking to uncover potential administrative wrongdoing — probes that even Pelosi has hinted could end in impeachment. On the other, Democrats are hoping to work with Trump in areas where they see common interests.

“The Congress has a responsibility for oversight, but we also have a responsibility to deliver for the people in our districts. And that's where I'm focused: on prescription drugs, trade policy, infrastructure,” Dingell said.

Democrats want to show they can get something done, even though it could also hand Trump a bipartisan accomplishment to tout in 2020.

“I think it's something that folks in the heartland who represent farm communities, who represent the auto industry, can look to as an achievement,” said former Rep. Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyPass USMCA Coalition drops stance on passing USMCA Democrats work to bring labor on board trade deal The Democrats' generational battle MORE (D-N.Y.), the former House Democratic Caucus chairman who’s now a leader of the Pass USMCA Coalition.

But the window for Congress to act is running short.

There’s widespread acknowledgment that the best time for action is before lawmakers depart for the August recess, after which presidential politics will start to take over. Congress is also faced with striking a deal to avoid another government shutdown and raise the debt limit in the fall. Considering the calendar — and the barriers still facing the USCMA — some lawmakers aren’t holding their breath.

“I'm not optimistic about it,” said Rep. Daniel LipinskiDaniel William LipinskiDemocratic group to only endorse attorney general candidates who back abortion rights Democrats unveil impeachment procedures The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges MORE (D-Ill.), another Blue Dog. “Nothing I've heard suggests that there's any changes that the administration is really looking to make.”

Neither did Rep. Marcy KapturMarcia (Marcy) Carolyn KapturAppropriators face crucial weekend to reach deal Congress races to beat deadline on shutdown Overnight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases MORE (D-Ohio), a frequent NAFTA critic.

“I don't see any indication that my concerns about labor, the environment and pharmaceuticals have been met,” Kaptur said.

Other Democrats are holding out hope, characterizing NAFTA’s effects on workers and farmers in their districts as a disaster. Many of these Democrats are strong Trump critics, but they say the president’s unorthodox negotiating style might compel a breakthrough.

"Trump's unconventional. I'm not a fan," said Rep. Kurt SchraderWalter (Kurt) Kurt SchraderGroup of Democrats floating censure of Trump instead of impeachment: report Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Krystal Ball: New Biden ad is everything that's wrong with Democrats MORE (D-Ore.), a member of the Blue Dogs. "But maybe he can get Canada and Mexico to say, 'All right. We'll just put this in the main agreement and call it good.'"

"I think it would pass if that happened," he added.

But if it can’t get through in the coming months, Kaptur said, "Let them make it a campaign issue."