Trump trade deal faces uncertain Senate timeline

Trump trade deal faces uncertain Senate timeline
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpOvernight Health Care: US hits 10,000 coronavirus deaths | Trump touts 'friendly' talk with Biden on response | Trump dismisses report on hospital shortages as 'just wrong' | Cuomo sees possible signs of curve flattening in NY We need to be 'One America,' the polling says — and the politicians should listen Barr tells prosecutors to consider coronavirus risk when determining bail: report MORE’s new North American trade agreement faces an uncertain timeline for approval in the Senate as the upper chamber braces for a lengthy and contentious impeachment trial.

There is wide bipartisan support for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which passed the House in December by a resounding 385 to 41. The deal is also expected to clear the Senate, where the GOP majority is ready to help Trump keep his promise to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), though the USMCA is largely an update and revision of the original pact.

Trump is within striking distance of his first significant trade victory with less than a year before the 2020 presidential election. Even so, his looming impeachment trial could prevent the Senate from finalizing the USMCA for weeks.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySusan Collins: Firing of intelligence community watchdog 'not warranted' Burr says intelligence watchdog should be 'independent' after inspector general firing Lawmakers press IRS to get coronavirus checks to seniors MORE (R-Iowa) has been pushing leaders to bring the deal to the floor before the end of next week, and business groups also want the Senate to act quickly. White House adviser Peter Navarro had predicted on Sunday that the deal could pass by week’s end.

Grassley’s panel approved the USMCA on Tuesday by a vote of 25 to 3, lining up the agreement for a vote from the full Senate. But a number of factors may scramble those hopes for quick passage. 

“I’m not sure we can get it all cleared by the end of the week, but I would like to have been able to wedge this in before the impeachment process starts,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump's magical thinking won't stop the coronavirus pandemic Lawmakers brace for more coronavirus legislation after trillion bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Senate overcomes hurdles, passes massive coronavirus bill MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

“It’s looking less likely only because there are so many committees that have to act on it,” Thune said, highlighting an added complication.

Several Senate committees are reviewing the deal, and some panels plan to hold hearings to suggest changes — even though those could be almost impossible to make.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will hold a hearing and vote on the agreement next Wednesday, and other panels are expected to follow suit. The HELP Committee hearing alone precludes a vote on the USMCA before the end of next week. One key issue likely to come up at the HELP Committee hearing is the reduced intellectual property protections for drug makers, a sticking point for the powerful pharmaceutical lobby. 

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Impeachment above all presents the toughest challenge to moving quickly on the USMCA.

Senate Democrats are boosting pressure on Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWe need to be 'One America,' the polling says — and the politicians should listen Florida Democrat hits administration over small business loan rollout The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Dybul interview; Boris Johnson update MORE (D-Calif.) to send the House-passed articles of impeachment to the upper chamber so that senators can begin the trial.

“Time plays an unknown role in all of this, and the longer it goes on, the less the urgency becomes. So, if it’s serious and urgent, it should come over. If it isn’t, don’t send it over,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCOVID-19 and the coming corruption pandemic Encryption helps America work safely — and that goes for Congress, too Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children MORE (Calif.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Senate would be forced to begin the process of Trump’s trial as soon as it receives articles of impeachment, which would prevent the chamber from considering any other legislation or nominees.

“The minute those articles come over, that takes precedence under the rules and under the Constitution,” Grassley said Tuesday.

Trump has also been focused on impeachment and on the recent crisis with Iran. That means there’s been little pressure from the White House to rush through the president’s marquee trade agreement. And Republican senators are less motivated to finalize the USMCA after the deal lurched leftward in negotiations between the Trump administration and House Democrats. 

Trump and Democrats shared a mutual scorn for NAFTA and a protectionist bent. While Democrats lambasted Trump’s original proposal, six months of talks yielded a deal supported by some of the fiercest critics of free trade, including Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Trump officials struggle to get relief loans out the door | Dow soars more than 1600 points | Kudlow says officials 'looking at' offering coronavirus bonds Overnight Energy: Trump floats oil tariffs amid Russia-Saudi dispute | Warren knocks EPA over 'highly dangerous' enforcement rollback | 2019 sees big increase in methane levels in air Ex-CFPB director urges agency to 'act immediately' to help consumers during pandemic MORE (D-Mass.), who is running for president, and Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownDemocrats urge administration to automatically issue coronavirus checks to more people Lawmakers press IRS to get coronavirus checks to seniors Democrats press Mnuchin to defend T coronavirus stimulus IG MORE (D-Ohio).

The remarkable alignment of a Republican president and Democratic lawmakers on trade alienated and frustrated GOP senators who were largely excluded from negotiations.

“Many Republicans don’t like the way the template has evolved because it’s certainly not in the direction of freer trade,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA 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 WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.) complained Tuesday that the Senate and the Senate Finance Committee had allowed itself to be sidetracked by Trump and House Democrats before he voted against the agreement.

“We’ve slapped on all of these provisions designed to restrict trade and investment. We’ll get no economic growth out of this,” Toomey said during the hearing. “We, the Senate and the Senate Finance Committee, are allowing ourselves to be marginalized.”

He and Sen. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyTensions boil over on Senate floor amid coronavirus debate  Overnight Energy: Democratic lawmakers seek emissions reductions in airline bailout | House Dems warn Trump against oil industry bailout | GOP senators ask Saudis to stabilize oil market GOP senators ask Saudis to stabilize oil market MORE (R-La.) were the only two Republicans to oppose the USMCA bill at the Finance Committee’s Tuesday hearing.

Republican critics insist they want more time to debate the agreement, in committees and when it hits the floor.

They will be able to review the text of the agreement and air their grievances in subsequent hearings but will be powerless to change it. The USMCA bill is being moved under “fast track” procedures that only allow lawmakers to hold an up or down vote on the agreement.

Senators will also lack a chance to hold “mock markups,” hearings where they could vote on suggested changes to the bill that could have been incorporated into negotiations. 

While the chances for altering the bill are slim, conservatives are still eager to voice their concerns.

“It’s clear that conservatives didn’t get much,” said Tori Whiting, a trade economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “At this point I don’t think there’s anything that can be physically done to change the implementing text of the bill.”