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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 LighthizerWhiskey, workers and friends caught in the trade dispute crossfire GOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' Pelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 MORE.

Lighthizer has fostered a strong relationship with the House lawmakers who will decide the fate of President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline 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.

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“He's very forthcoming, and he's very good on the politics, he's accessible, he's loquacious,” said Rep. Brian HigginsBrian HigginsEighth person charged in alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Whitmer Biden slams Trump for promoting conspiracy theory about man shoved by police Trump claims 75-year-old man shoved by Buffalo police could be part of 'set up' 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 PelosiPelosi: Trump should accept election results 'like a man' The spectre of pension failures haunts this election Microsoft: Iranian hacking group targeting attendees of major international security conferences 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 CornynCook moves Texas to 'toss-up' Biden pushes into Trump territory Cruz: Hunter Biden attacks don't move 'a single voter' 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 DoggettCongress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act Ocasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts Trump order on drug prices faces long road to finish line 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 BradyLawmakers offer bipartisan bill to encourage retirement savings On The Money: GOP cool to White House's .6T coronavirus price tag | Company layoffs mount as pandemic heads into fall | Initial jobless claims drop to 837,000 GOP cool to White House's .6T coronavirus price tag 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 BlumenauerRestaurants brace for long COVID-19 winter Ahead of a coronavirus vaccine, Mexico's drug pricing to have far-reaching impacts on Americans Trump threatens to double down on Portland in other major cities 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 HoyerHoyer lays out ambitious Democratic agenda for 2021, with health care at top Top Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate Trump orders aides to halt talks on COVID-19 relief 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 PascrellDemocrats express concerns about IRS readiness for next year's filing season Obama hits trail to help Biden, protect legacy Trump's COVID-19 case draws new attention to handling of pandemic 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.