Trump trade deal faces uncertain Senate timeline

Trump trade deal faces uncertain Senate timeline
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyAlarm grows over smash-and-grab robberies amid holiday season GOP blocks bill to expand gun background checks after Michigan school shooting GOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision 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 ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown Senate dodges initial December crisis with last-minute deal Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight 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. 

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

Senate Democrats are boosting pressure on Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPhotos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles Hospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan GOP infighting takes stupid to a whole new level 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 FeinsteinWhat's that you smell in the Supreme Court? New variant raises questions about air travel mandates Progressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign 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 WarrenWarren calls on big banks to follow Capital One in ditching overdraft fees Crypto firm top executives to testify before Congress Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker won't seek reelection MORE (D-Mass.), who is running for president, and Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate race in Ohio poses crucial test for Democrats Powell says Fed will consider faster taper amid surging inflation Biden faces new pressure from climate groups after Powell pick 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 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.) 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 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.) were the only two Republicans to oppose the USMCA bill at the Finance Committee’s Tuesday hearing.

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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.”