White House starts clock on approval for new NAFTA

White House starts clock on approval for new NAFTA
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The White House on Thursday formally notified Congress that it is starting the approval process for President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE’s revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), triggering a showdown with congressional Democrats over Trump’s signature trade agreement.

The decision is designed to put pressure on House Democrats, who have objections to the revised trade pact and have reportedly warned the White House not to begin the formal process of submitting it to Congress.

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“Canada and Mexico have formally initiated their ratification processes. It is time for the United States to uphold our end of the bargain with our key allies and neighbors and do the same,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerChinese, US negotiators fine-tuning details of trade agreement: report The Trump economy keeps roaring ahead Trump says no discussion of extending deadline in Chinese trade talks MORE wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDHS chief to Pelosi: Emergency border funding 'has already had an impact' The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants Trump faces new hit on deficit MORE (D-Calif.)

The White House sent a draft statement of administrative action to lawmakers, a necessary step for the new NAFTA to be considered on a fast-track basis.

That kicks off a minimum 30-day period before the implementing legislation would be sent to Congress, though it is possible the White House could further delay introducing the legislation to provide more time for negotiations.

Filing the report with Congress, however, was intended to send a signal to Democrats that the White House will not accept a long delay.

“Today’s action is all about moving forward on an agreement that we know is a win,” Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceHow China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade Trump says he disagrees with 'send her back' chant Trump refers to Ocasio-Cortez as just 'Cortez' because it 'takes too much time' to say full name MORE said Thursday during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin TrudeauJustin Pierre James TrudeauEU official in Canada says he feels 'at home' there because no one was shouting 'send him back' Trudeau rips Trump over attacks on Democratic lawmakers: 'That is not how we do things in Canada' Sarah Sanders hits Ocasio-Cortez over criticism of Ivanka Trump's G-20 appearance MORE in Ottawa.

Pence reiterated the administration wants Congress to pass the agreement by “this summer.”

The move inflamed tensions with Democrats who say they need more time to review the agreement and consider changes. Pelosi said the decision “is not a positive step” and “indicates a lack of knowledge on the part of the administration on the policy and process to pass a trade agreement.”

“We have been on a path to yes, but it must be a path that leads to an agreement that delivers positive results for American workers and farmers,” she said in a statement.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealDemocrat: Treasury 'acknowledged the unprecedented process' in Trump tax return rejection House votes to repeal ObamaCare's 'Cadillac tax' Finish the work of building a renewable fuels industry MORE (D-Mass.) said the move by the White House would not deter Democrats from demanding changes and working at their own pace.

“The premature submission of a draft statement of administrative action has no impact on that outstanding work or the timeline moving forward,” he added.

Pelosi had reportedly warned Lighthizer privately not to send the draft statement, in order to buy more time for negotiations. The Speaker said her caucus wants stronger labor and environmental protections included in the new NAFTA agreement.

“We all agree that we must replace NAFTA, but without real enforcement mechanisms we would be locking American workers into another bad deal,” she said. “A new trade agreement without enforcement is not progress for the American worker, just a press release for the president.”

But the White House has been pressing for quick action on the deal, which is arguably its top legislative priority ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

In his letter, Lighthizer sought to assuage Democrats, writing that the draft statement “does not limit our ability to find solutions to address concerns members have raised about enforcement of the labor and environmental provisions of the agreement and pharmaceutical pricing.”

By sending the draft statement now, Lighthizer argued that it would allow Congress sufficient time to pass the revised NAFTA before its August recess, the stated goal of the Trump administration.

Trump last year brokered the revised trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, billing it as a replacement for NAFTA, which he has blasted as a “disaster” for the U.S. But the changes cannot go into place unless the House and Senate approve them, along with the governments of the two other North American countries.  

The deal is designed to shift some automotive production back to the U.S., further open Canadian dairy markets to U.S. farmers and reform intellectual property rules the administration saw as outdated.

– Niv Elis and Brett Samuels contributed

Updated at 6:11 p.m.