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 LighthizerPelosi sounds hopeful on new NAFTA deal despite tensions with White House On The Money: Economy adds 164K jobs in July | Trump signs two-year budget deal, but border showdown looms | US, EU strike deal on beef exports Chinese, US negotiators fine-tuning details of trade agreement: report MORE.

Lighthizer has fostered a strong relationship with the House lawmakers who will decide the fate of President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation 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 HigginsHere 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 Democrats give Trump trade chief high marks 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 PelosiTrump knocks testimony from 'Never Trumpers' at Louisiana rally Jordan calls Pelosi accusing Trump of bribery 'ridiculous' USMCA deal close, but not 'imminent,' Democrats say 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 CornynGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Overnight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Senate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges 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 DoggettWhite House talking new tax cuts with GOP On The Money: Lawmakers hammer Zuckerberg over Facebook controversies | GOP chair expects another funding stopgap | Senate rejects Dem measure on SALT deduction cap workarounds House committee advances measure taxing nicotine in vaping products 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 under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families How centrist Dems learned to stop worrying and love impeachment On The Money: Senate passes first spending package as shutdown looms | Treasury moves to roll back Obama rules on offshore tax deals | Trade deal talks manage to weather Trump impeachment storm 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 BlumenauerCongress should lift the ban on medical cannabis access for military veterans Hillicon Valley: Google buying Fitbit for .1B | US launches national security review of TikTok | Twitter shakes up fight over political ads | Dems push committee on 'revenge porn' law Progressives urge end to mass phone data collection program 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 Hoyer Hoyer calls GOP efforts to out whistleblower 'despicable' Live coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate 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 PascrellHillicon Valley: Critics press feds to block Google, Fitbit deal | Twitter takes down Hamas, Hezbollah-linked accounts | TikTok looks to join online anti-terrorism effort | Apple pledges .5B to affordable housing Dem lawmakers ask Twitter how it will guard against census disinformation Trade deal talks manage to weather Trump impeachment storm 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.