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Senate panel advances Trump's new NAFTA despite GOP gripes

Senate panel advances Trump's new NAFTA despite GOP gripes
© Greg Nash

A Senate panel on Tuesday advanced President TrumpDonald TrumpDonald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump's shadow McConnell says he'd back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee MORE’s revamp of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) almost unanimously despite grumbling from conservative lawmakers.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 25-3 to send to the full chamber a bill implementing Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Sens. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyPhilly GOP commissioner on censures: 'I would suggest they censure Republican elected officials who are lying' Toomey censured by several Pennsylvania county GOP committees over impeachment vote Toomey on Trump vote: 'His betrayal of the Constitution' required conviction MORE (R-Pa.), Bill CassidyBill CassidyOvernight Health Care: Johnson & Johnson vaccine safe, effective in FDA analysis | 3-4 million doses coming next week | White House to send out 25 million masks Koch-backed group launches ads urging lawmakers to reject COVID-19 relief bill Biden health nominee faces first Senate test MORE (R-La.) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseBiden nominee previews post-Trump trade agenda Tucker Carlson bashes CNN, claims it's 'more destructive' than QAnon Garland seeks to draw sharp contrast with Trump-era DOJ MORE (D-R.I.) opposed the measure, which passed the House last month with broad bipartisan support.

The GOP-controlled Senate is expected to finalize the USMCA within weeks, cementing Trump’s most substantial victory on trade policy. But Senate leaders could be forced to delay a floor vote until after Trump's impeachment trial if Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMinimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster House Democrats to keep minimum wage hike in COVID-19 relief bill for Friday vote Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump's shadow MORE (D-Calif.) sends House-passed articles of impeachment to the upper chamber in the coming days.

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While the new trade deal is not the total replacement of NAFTA that Trump promised during the 2016 campaign, it makes significant updates to the 1994 pact that the president called the “worst” trade agreement in U.S. history.

Trump was able to secure the support of Democrats and some labor unions after agreeing to several major concessions. Changes that won over progressives included tougher labor law enforcement, stricter environmental standards and stripping protections for certain high-cost pharmaceuticals.

“When the Trump administration sent up the first version of this new NAFTA agreement, it was just more of the status quo. It didn't cut it,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBiden nominee previews post-Trump trade agenda Labor expands jobless aid for workers who reject employers skirting COVID-19 rules Democrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic MORE (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, who voted in favor of the measure Tuesday.

Most Senate Republicans are eager to hand Trump a victory on one of his top priorities ahead of the 2020 elections, despite their preferences for looser trade restrictions.

But several GOP senators complained Tuesday about being taken for granted.

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“Here we are today, totally jammed by the House and this process, not even able to offer an amendment,” Toomey said. “We've slapped on all of these provisions designed to restrict trade and investment, we’ll get no economic growth out of this. And we, the Senate and the Senate Finance Committee, are allowing ourselves to be marginalized.”

Cassidy, the only other Republican to vote against USMCA on Tuesday, said, “The House got a lot of stuff because the House actually had the ability to say, ‘We're not going to do this unless we get our demands met.’ We've not had that ability.”

Pelosi refused to hold a vote on USMCA without drastic changes to the agreement first proposed by Trump in 2018. After six months of intense and secretive negotiations, Trump and Pelosi announced a deal on a revised pact with the endorsement of powerful labor groups like the AFL-CIO that have long opposed NAFTA.

Trump’s protectionist trade policy has been a constant strain on the president's relationship with congressional Republicans who support reducing trade barriers. Several GOP senators said Tuesday that while they shared the concerns of Toomey and Cassidy, they had little choice but to approve USMCA.

“Sen. Toomey made a bunch of important comments that I agree with as well,” said Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Key vote for Haaland's confirmation | Update on oil and gas leasing | SEC update on climate-related risk disclosure requirements Josh Hawley is a conservative without a clue Republican Party going off the rails? MORE (R-Neb.). “And yet we need to, given the political realities, get this agreement across the finish line.”

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottLobbying world Powell pushes back on GOP inflation fears Trump ready to make McConnell's life miserable MORE (R-S.C.) added that USMCA “is certainly not a perfect deal, and not necessarily the deal that I would like us to be discussing today, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.”

Trump has threatened to pull out of the original NAFTA agreement if Congress fails to approve USMCA. Doing so would likely derail the economies of all three countries, upend continental supply lines and send prices for groceries soaring.