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 TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table 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 ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.), Bill CassidyBill CassidySunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist Legislators look to expand health care access through telehealth, biosimilars Infrastructure deal is proof that Congress can still do good, bipartisan work MORE (R-La.) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseThe Hill's Morning Report - Ins and outs: Powell renominated at Fed, Parnell drops Senate bid On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall 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 PelosiNews media's sausage-making obsession helps no one Klobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season 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 WydenSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Lobbyists turn to infrastructure law's implementation Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos 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.

“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 SasseThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House to vote on Biden social spending bill after McCarthy delay CBO releases cost estimate of Biden plan Real conservatives must make a choice MORE (R-Neb.). “And yet we need to, given the political realities, get this agreement across the finish line.”

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottDems erupt over GOP 'McCarthyism' as senators vet Biden bank watchdog pick Why Democrats' prescription drug pricing provision would have hurt seniors Telehealth was a godsend during the pandemic; Congress should keep the innovation going 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.