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 TrumpUPS, FedEx shut down calls to handle mail-in ballots, warn of 'significant' problems: report Controversial GOP Georgia candidate attempts to distance from QAnon Trump orders TikTok parent company to sell US assets within 90 days 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 NealThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump hedges with Post Office funding | Harris speaks with 19th | An apology of sorts in Massachusetts College Democrats call homophobic attacks on Morse 'unacceptable' Alex Morse says campaign had best fundraising week after allegations of inappropriate behavior 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 McConnellMcGrath reshuffles campaign in home stretch to Senate election GOP senator draws fire from all sides on Biden, Obama-era probes Chris Wallace rips both parties for coronavirus package impasse: 'Pox on both their houses' 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 SmithPass the Primary Care Enhancement Act Trump coronavirus briefings put health officials in bind House GOP lawmakers urge Senate to confirm Vought 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 SewellRevered civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis lies in state in the Capitol House approves Clyburn proposal to rename voting rights bill after John Lewis John Lewis carried across Edmund Pettus Bridge for last time 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."

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 KellyWatchdog calls for probe into Gohmert 'disregarding public health guidance' on COVID-19 Massie plans to donate plasma after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies Multiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert 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 PascrellHouse Democrat files criminal referral accusing Trump of subverting election 'This already exists': Democrats seize on potential Trump executive order on preexisting conditions Lawmakers urge administration to remove tariffs on European wine and spirits amid coronavirus pandemic 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 LewisThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance More than 50 Confederate monuments have been removed since Floyd's death: report Trump rips Bill Maher as 'exhausted, gaunt and weak' MORE (D-Ga.) “Twenty-six years later, I’m so proud of this bill that begins to correct the ruins of the original NAFTA.”