Democrats give Trump trade chief high marks

Democrats give Trump trade chief high marks

In a Democratic House at war with the Trump administration, one official has managed to forge warm ties across the aisle: 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.

Lighthizer has fostered a strong relationship with the House lawmakers who will decide the fate of President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE's signature achievement on trade: the United States Canada Mexico Agreement (USMCA).

The deal faces deep opposition from House Democrats in its current form, and a short timeline for passage with the 2020 election nearing. But Democrats have praised Lighthizer for his transparency and candor amid tense negotiations, even as they battle Trump on multiple fronts.

ADVERTISEMENT

“He's very forthcoming, and he's very good on the politics, he's accessible, he's loquacious,” said Rep. Brian HigginsBrian Higgins'Medicare for All' backers notch win with high-profile hearing Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment On The Money: Sanders unveils plan to wipe .6T in student debt | How Sanders plan plays in rivalry with Warren | Treasury watchdog to probe delay of Harriet Tubman bills | Trump says Fed 'blew it' on rate decision MORE (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees trade. 

“He can give you an answer that you're not necessarily mad about, because he appears to be forthright and honest,” he added, calling Lighthizer “user-friendly.”

For Trump, passage of the USMCA, an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is a central legislative goal. Trump has sparked trade wars with partners such as the European Union and adversaries such as China, but critics say he has little to show for it.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats offer mixed reactions to Trump's Mideast peace plan James Taylor to perform at awards ceremony for Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week Trump offers two-state peace plan for Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid skepticism MORE (D-Calif.) will have the final say over whether and when legislation codifying the agreement will be put to a vote. Pelosi has complained that the deal needs better enforcement measures, needs stronger environmental and labor protections and provisions on pharmaceuticals.
But despite her issues with the deal and the tough negotiations with the administration, Pelosi has praised Lighthizer for regularly meeting with Democrats and working to address their concerns.

“I believe that the trade representative has been most accommodating and [been] available for members,” she said in February. 

“We've had good rapport with Mr. Lighthizer,” she added.

Lighthizer returned the praise at a hearing Tuesday.

“The Speaker has been completely fair and above board and, I think, constructive in the way she’s done it,” he said in response to a question from Sen. John CornynJohn CornynHillicon Valley: UK allows Huawei to build 5G in blow to Trump | Lawmakers warn decision threatens intel sharing | Work on privacy bill inches forward | Facebook restricts travel to China amid virus Republicans signal renewed confidence they'll avoid witness fight Lawmakers warn US, UK intel sharing at risk after Huawei decision MORE (R-Texas) about Pelosi's handling of the deal.

Lighthizer added that Pelosi “has been exactly as you hope she would be.”

Lighthizer is one of the few Trump administration officials to receive broad bipartisan support. A former trade attorney, Reagan administration trade official and Republican Senate aide, Lighthizer was confirmed by the Senate in 2017 with a 82-17 vote.

His rapport with Pelosi is a stark contrast from the pressure campaign waged by Trump, who has threatened to pull out of NAFTA if his replacement deal is not ratified. 

The president and his congressional allies have grown frustrated with the lengthy negotiations and have urged Pelosi to put USMCA up for a vote without delay.

Trump in May ordered Lighthizer to start the clock on a fast-track process needed to pass USMCA before Congress leave for its summer recess. The move doesn’t force Pelosi’s hand, but was a clear message from Trump to speed up talks over the trade deal.

Pelosi responded in a statement that she was disappointed in Trump for pre-empting her negotiations with Lighthizer while Democrats “have been on a path to yes.”

Some veteran Democratic lawmakers have even compared Lighthizer favorably against former President Obama trade chief Michael FromanMichael B.G. FromanOn The Money: Sanders unveils plan to wipe .6T in student debt | How Sanders plan plays in rivalry with Warren | Treasury watchdog to probe delay of Harriet Tubman bills | Trump says Fed 'blew it' on rate decision Democrats give Trump trade chief high marks US trade rep spent nearly M to furnish offices: report MORE, who negotiated the defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).   

“It's such a contrast with Froman, who I found to be really impossible to work with and [employed a] very great amount of duplicity,” said Rep. Lloyd DoggettLloyd Alton DoggettGreen says House shouldn't hold impeachment articles indefinitely Appeals court strikes ObamaCare mandate, sends case back to lower court House passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices MORE (D-Texas), another Ways and Means member. 

Doggett said Froman, in comparison to Lighthizer, was “less forthcoming, not answering questions directly or not answering them at all.” 

He cited a case involving illegal Peruvian logging, in which he said Froman refused to take action. Doggett said that Lighthizer despite “working for a president for whom I have nothing but disdain ... responded and backed the Peruvians down.”

The Obama administration did trigger an audit provision on Peruvian logging and seize a shipment of logs following the investigation. Other members of the Democratic Caucus who spoke to The Hill gave Froman high praise.

Some Republicans, like House Ways and Means ranking member Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyConservative groups aim to sink bipartisan fix to 'surprise' medical bills Trump economic aide says new tax proposal could be unveiled this summer Hoyer: Democratic chairmen trying to bridge divide on surprise medical bills MORE (Texas), are bullish on Lighthizer’s chances of getting the deal through the House.

Brady said he is optimistic Lighthizer can bring Democrats around on what he called “a dream trade agreement” for Pelosi’s party.

"Ambassador Lighthizer has asked for the time and space to have these conversations,” Brady said. "I think we ought to give him that time and we, as Republicans, want to help how we can."

But even with the warm relationships Lighthizer has fostered on Capitol Hill, Democrats remain wary of the new trade deal. Rep. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerLobbying world Hillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack Progressives oppose spending stopgap measure over surveillance authority extension MORE (D-Ore.), who heads up the Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said this week that the deal was unlikely to advance this summer.

James Lucier, managing partner at political research firm Capital Alpha Partners, said Lighthizer will have little sway over the House progressives least likely to support the deal.

“He can talk intelligibly about hard hat jobs to old guys like [Ways and Means Chairman] Richie Neal and [House Majority Leader] Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse Democrats push back on Trump's efforts to take credit for the economy This week: Senate barrels toward showdown on impeachment witnesses The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules MORE, but they don't control or represent the party any more, Lucier said in an email. “The progressives are driving the train.” 

Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellHouse Democrat presses Pentagon after Trump downplays severity of US troop injuries in Iran attack House approves Trump's USMCA trade deal amid shadow of impeachment A solemn impeachment day on Capitol Hill MORE (D-N.J.), a senior Ways and Means member, expressed concerns that some Democrats may fold under pressure to pass the agreement.

“When people say, 'We're looking for yes,' some really mean it, and they'll settle for nothing less, Pascrell said. “That's what I'm a little skeptical about."

And Higgins said he is nervous that more strident White House voices could taint the talks.

“I suspect the real influence is the White House and Peter Navarro,” he said, referring to Trump’s hawkish trade advisor.

The pressure on Lighthizer is certain to increase as the clock ticks down.

Doggett said that if Trump does overcome the daunting odds and sees his the trade deal get through the Democratic House, he will have Lighthizer to thank.

“Given his boss, I don't want to praise him so much it costs him his job,” he joked.