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House panel advances Trump's new NAFTA

House panel advances Trump's new NAFTA
© Greg Nash

The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday approved legislation that would implement President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE’s revised North American trade deal, readying it for a floor vote that's expected later this week.

By voice vote, lawmakers on the panel recommended passage of a measure that would enact Trump’s proposed update to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Trump and House Democrats reached a deal last week to pass the president’s rebooted NAFTA, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), after six months of intense negotiations. Democrats agreed to take up the deal after securing provisions to tighten labor and environmental law enforcement, and scrap patent protections for high-cost pharmaceuticals.

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“These changes set a new standard for U.S. trade agreements and demonstrate that trade agreements can receive broad bipartisan support if they empower workers, protect patients’ access to affordable health care and improve our shared environment,” Rep. Richard NealRichard Edmund NealBiden names Janet Yellen as his Treasury nominee Overnight Health Care: Trump announces two moves aimed at lowering drug prices | Sturgis rally blamed for COVID-19 spread in Minnesota | Stanford faculty condemn Scott Atlas Trump announces two moves aimed at lowering drug prices MORE (D-Mass.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said Tuesday.

The panel’s approval of USMCA brings Trump a step closer to a significant victory on a key campaign issue ahead of the 2020 election. While USMCA is not quite the overhaul of NAFTA that Trump promised in 2016, the deal has been praised across party lines as a substantial improvement from the original 1994 pact.

Trump’s criticism of NAFTA played a crucial role in his appeal to voters in industrial states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. All three states reliably supported Democratic presidential candidates until breaking for Trump in 2016, and are essential to the president’s reelection bid.

Teaming up with Trump may also give vulnerable Democrats political cover as they pursue his impeachment, which could pose challenges for vulnerable moderates in 2020.

The House is expected to pass USMCA as soon as Thursday with ample bipartisan support, just one day after Democrats will likely pass articles of impeachment against Trump.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal Top GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot MORE (R-Ky.) said the chamber will not be able to vote on USMCA until after Trump’s impeachment trial, which could take until the end of January.

Several Republicans accused Democrats of hindering USMCA with an impeachment probe, bemoaning time lost to clear the agreement since it was first revealed in October 2018.

“Why is it this week that we're voting on this agreement?” asked Rep. Jason SmithJason Thomas SmithHouse GOP votes to keep leaders in place This week: Clock ticks on coronavirus, government funding deals Second whistleblower who accused Texas AG of bribery fired from position: report MORE (R-Mo.) on Tuesday. “Is it because the same person who brought this agreement to the table, Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.], is also trying to impeach him? That’s unfortunate.”

Democrats countered that Trump’s initial offering wasn’t strong enough to earn their support until they secured victories in negotiations with 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, who drew a slew of compliments across the aisle.

"The Trump administration handed us a USMCA that needed some work," said Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Lobbying world Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election MORE (D-Ala.) a member of the House Democratic working group leading negotiations with Lighthizer. "That proposal was a non-starter for Democrats, so we made it better."

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The mood in the Ways and Means meeting was festive despite minor partisan jockeying, and some members even invoked the holiday season. Rep. Mike KellyGeorge (Mike) Joseph KellyLieutenant governor: Trump campaign would get its 'clock cleaned' if it appeals Pennsylvania ruling to Supreme Court Pennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Pennsylvania Republicans sue in last-ditch effort to stop election certification MORE (R-Pa.) compared USMCA to Santa Claus checking off his Christmas Day list.

“I never got everything I asked for, but I was sure as heck thankful for everything I got. This is certainly one of those times for the letter to Santa Claus actually got answered,” Kelly said.

Neal answered Kelly by invoking “another sage of Western political thought” and legendary figure from a cold, northern island: Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.

“You get what you need,” Neal said, quoting the band's classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

The bipartisan back-patting was little comfort for some progressives who remain skeptical despite widespread union support for the agreement.

Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellTalk of self-pardon for Trump heats up House Democrats urge congressional leaders to support .1B budget for IRS Press: Trump's biggest fear is — lock him up MORE (D-N.J.) said he was “deeply uneasy” about the final product and compared the negotiating process to getting “the bum’s rush.”

“There was no higher trade priority for me than updating NAFTA. I definitely wanted a deal that makes a difference,” Pascrell said. “I regret that I am not satisfied with what we have.”

Even so, most Democrats are expected to support replacing NAFTA with what even trade skeptics consider a modest improvement.

“We’ve learned from the blunders of our mistakes,” said Rep. John LewisJohn LewisOssoff features Obama in TV ad ahead of in Georgia run-off Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Democrats lead in diversity in new Congress despite GOP gains MORE (D-Ga.) “Twenty-six years later, I’m so proud of this bill that begins to correct the ruins of the original NAFTA.”