Customs bill could reach finish line this week

House and Senate lawmakers are nearing an agreement on a customs enforcement measure, even amid some Democratic dissent, which would wrap up another key piece of President Obama’s legislative trade agenda.

Conferees said Monday night during their first public meeting that the goal is to put the final touches on a House-Senate conference report this week, about seven months after the Senate first passed the legislation in May.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchBottom line Bottom line Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  MORE (R-Utah) said during a meeting in the Capitol that “these months of work has enabled us to narrow our differences and reach significant areas of agreement and I am confident that we’ll be able to close out the remaining issues and reach a favorable outcome." 

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyBusinesses, states pass on Trump payroll tax deferral Trump order on drug prices faces long road to finish line On The Money: US deficit hits trillion amid pandemic | McConnell: Chance for relief deal 'doesn't look that good' | House employees won't have payroll taxes deferred MORE (R-Texas) told reporters that the aim is to complete work this week and send a measure to the president's desk even with the completion of tax extenders package and an omnibus spending bill looming.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSupreme Court fight pushes Senate toward brink Hillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Lawmakers introduce legislation to boost cybersecurity of local governments, small businesses MORE (R-Texas), who voted against the Senate's measure, which passed easily on a 78-20 vote, said that the bill has been improved considerably and he is likely to support a final measure. 

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Democratic senators ask inspector general to investigate IRS use of location tracking service MORE (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on Senate Finance, said that the conference report represents "a new playbook on trade."

"This will be the strongest package of enforcement policies Congress has considered in decades," Wyden said. 

But two House Democratic conferees — Reps. Sander Levin (Mich.) and Linda Sanchez (Calif.) — expressed doubts that a compromise could be reached that would gain their support.

Levin, ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said that he isn’t "optimistic that this committee will produce a product I can support."

Levin said that he is concerned a conference report will retain what he called “very troubling changes to the negotiating objectives in TPA [trade promotion authority]— on core issues like climate change, human trafficking and immigration.”

He said that the climate provisions could prevent a multilateral agreement from being incorporated into the text of trade agreements or from negotiating fuel efficiency standards on a U.S. trade deal with the European Union. 

Wyden joined Levin in reiterating that environmental protections are a major priority for him and many Democrats.

"This bill cannot and will not in any way prevent the United States from negotiating climate agreements," he said.

Levin also pointed to human trafficking language that would allow for fast-tracking trade agreements through Congress with countries that have major human rights issues as long as that country “has taken concrete actions” to implement sweeping changes regardless of the actual conditions on the ground. 

He also expressed concern that a currency manipulation provision aimed at punishing violators with additional duties on their imports is expected to get the axe.

That language, offered by Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' Biden refuses to say whether he would support expanding Supreme Court Schumer says Trump tweet shows court pick meant to kill off ObamaCare MORE (D-N.Y.), was never expected to survive a conference because it is opposed by the White House.

Levin said the language addressing currency that is expected to survive "will do nothing to move the needle on this key issue." 

“And while the conference report will likely include several provisions intended to strengthen the enforcement of U.S. trade agreements, those provisions are being oversold," Levin said.

Overall, the measure reauthorizes the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, streamlines trade rules that aim to keep importers from skirting U.S. antidumping and countervailing duties, adds new protections for intellectual property rights and provides more tools to identify and address currency manipulation.

"Too often, companies sneak counterfeit goods past our borders," Wyden said. "Foreign governments spy on our businesses and enforcers. They bully our firms into relocating jobs and turning over intellectual property," he said.

"They try to undercut American industries so quickly that the U.S. is unable to act before it’s too late."

Among other priorities, Wyden said the legislation "absolutely must close an egregious loophole that allowed products made with slave and child labor to be imported to the U.S."

He said the final deal also must include the new trust fund for trade enforcement and must make the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center a permanent agency. 

Hatch said he hopes a final deal also will provide additional trade preferences to help Nepal recover from a devastating earthquake earlier this year.

The measure also is expected to include a new process to consider a Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, or, at least define a clear path forward.