Trump trade deal faces uncertain Senate timeline

Trump trade deal faces uncertain Senate timeline
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet 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 GrassleyOvernight Energy: Democrats unveil draft climate bill | Plan aims for carbon neutrality by 2050 | GOP senators press IRS on electric vehicle tax credit GOP senator: John Bolton should go public with what he knows GOP senators press IRS on enforcement of electric vehicle tax credit 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 ThuneGOP confident of win on witnesses Republicans signal renewed confidence they'll avoid witness fight The Hill's Morning Report - Bolton charge ups ante in witness showdown 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 PelosiDemocrats offer mixed reactions to Trump's Mideast peace plan James Taylor to perform at awards ceremony for Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week Trump offers two-state peace plan for Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid skepticism 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 FeinsteinExtreme Risk Protection Order Act will help keep guns out of the wrong hands California Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Biden wins endorsement of Sacramento mayor 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 Ann WarrenBiden on whether Sanders can unify party as nominee: 'It depends' Overnight Health Care — Presented by Philip Morris International — HHS has no plans to declare emergency over coronavirus | GOP senator calls for travel ban to stop outbreak | Warren releases plan to contain infectious diseases Biden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa MORE (D-Mass.), who is running for president, and Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSchiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Sunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial Senate Democrat: 'Fine' to hear from Hunter Biden 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 CassidySenators opt to drink milk on Senate floor during impeachment trial Big Pharma looks to stem losses after trade deal defeat Trump trade deal faces uncertain Senate timeline 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.”