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Trump trade deal faces uncertain Senate timeline

Trump trade deal faces uncertain Senate timeline
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation 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 GrassleyRep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 On The Money: Biden to nominate Yellen for Treasury secretary | 'COVID cliff' looms | Democrats face pressure to back smaller stimulus Loeffler to continue to self-isolate after conflicting COVID-19 test results 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 ThuneDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Overnight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names Trump keeps tight grip on GOP amid divisions 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 PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation 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 FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee 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 WarrenThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE (D-Mass.), who is running for president, and Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol 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 ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy 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 CassidyBill CassidyAs Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Bottom line 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.”