Trump trade chief casts doubt on NAFTA deal this year

Trump trade chief casts doubt on NAFTA deal this year
© Getty

President Trump’s top trade official on Wednesday said renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by the end of the year could prove difficult.  

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told the Senate Finance Committee that he wants to shorten aspects of the negotiations with Mexico and Canada in the modernization of the 23-year-old pact.  

But he gave no hint as to when he expected a completed final deal that would be ready to send to Congress.  

“We’re going to have very short time frame, and we’re going to compact it as much as we possibly can,” Lighthizer said. 

“There is no deadline. My hope is that we get it done by the end of the year, but there are a lot of people who think that’s completely unrealistic,” he said.  


Timelines for completing trade agreements tend to stretch, so trade officials usually avoid laying down markers for completing them.

But Lighthizer said neither Trump nor Congress would tolerate a drawn out process on NAFTA. 

“There are people that have said we ought to try to get it done by the end of the year. That’s a very, very quick time frame,” he said. 

“We’re certainly not going to have a bad agreement to save time; we don’t have any arbitrary deadline,” he said.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said recently that he hopes an agreement will be ready by early next year ahead of elections in Mexico and the United States. 

In terms of time, Lighthizer said negotiations will start on Aug. 16 and “we’re in the process right now of talking to our negotiating partners about what the first day of the meeting will be.”

Meanwhile, the NAFTA process is shifting into a higher gear in Washington, with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative planning public hearings for next week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. 

That will give interested groups a chance to further discuss their priorities for an update to the three-nation deal.  

The trade representative office is reviewing the 12,451 comments it received on NAFTA.

The public hearings, along with consultations with Congress, will help shape the Trump administration’s objectives for NAFTA, which Lighthizer said would be ready on July 17. 

While Lighthizer is charged with hammering out a revamped NAFTA with Mexico and Canada, he acknowledged that any final agreement will also have to have the support to pass Congress. 

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate GOP signal they won't filibuster debate of hate crimes bill Application portal for venue grants down for five days with no updates Democrats work to pick up GOP support on anti-Asian hate crimes bill MORE (R-Texas), the chief vote-counter for Senate Republicans, raised the political realities of finding enough support on Capitol Hill. 

“When we bring something back, it has to pass, and there’s almost no margin for error,” Lighthizer said. 

“My hope, to be honest, is that we end up with a model agreement that has a substantial number of Democrats as well as Republicans.

“I’ve talked to a lot of Democratic senators who give me hope that that’s a possibility if we do the right kind of agreement." 

The looming renegotiation of NAFTA is already fueling intense lobbying from industry groups, as well as states and provinces in Canada and Mexico. 

Business and agriculture groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are focusing on modernizing the 1990s-era agreement; they want fewer changes and a swift pace to minimize uncertainty across the three economies.  

However, the AFL-CIO, along with other labor groups and some congressional Democrats, are calling for a rewrite of the sweeping agreement, which would likely stretch out talks well into next year if not beyond. 

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenIRS chief warns of unpaid taxes hitting trillion The first Southern state legalizes marijuana — what it means nationally A bold fix for US international taxation of corporations MORE (D-Ore.), ranking member of the Finance Committee, said NAFTA could use a "complete overhaul."

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka last week said “it is time for the Trump administration to rewrite NAFTA the right way.”