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 John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points 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 ToomeyGOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy NSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general MORE (R-Pa.), Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US virus deaths exceed 100,000; Pelosi pulls FISA bill Stakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff Pass the Primary Care Enhancement Act MORE (R-La.) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseFederal judges should be allowed to be Federalist Society members Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in IRS proposes guidance for expanded carbon capture tax credit 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 Pelosi Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death 5 things to know about US-China tensions over Hong Kong Pelosi calls Trump's decision to withdraw US from WHO 'an act of extraordinary senselessness' 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 WydenOn The Money: Senate Dems pump brakes on new stimulus checks | Trump officials sued over tax refunds | Fed to soon open small-business lending program Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Voting rights, public health officials roll out guidelines to protect voters from COVID-19 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 SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseHillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Lawmakers ask for briefings on Chinese targeting of coronavirus research On The Money: GOP senators heed Fed chair's call for more relief | Rollout of new anti-redlining laws spark confusion in banking industry | Nearly half of American households have lost employment income during pandemic MORE (R-Neb.). “And yet we need to, given the political realities, get this agreement across the finish line.”

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGOP Sen. Tim Scott calls for the arrest of other officers involved in Floyd death Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death Mississippi mayor defends officers in George Floyd's death: 'If you can talk, you can breathe' 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.