WASHINGTON — U.S. House Democrats have worked out key differences with the President Trump administration over a massive trade deal, allowing both sides to declare a legislative victory on the same day the House unveiled articles of impeachment against the president.
If ratified, the deal would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which took effect a quarter century ago. Proponents say the “new NAFTA” will grow the economy, support workers, protect the environment and create a more level playing field between the United States and Mexico and Canada.
“It’s a victory for America’s workers [and] one we take great pride in advancing,” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a press conference Tuesday.
Democrats regarded the Trump administration’s initial version of the deal as a non-starter because of language that they said would allow violations of labor and environmental standards to go unchecked and lead to higher prescription drug prices.
But Pelosi credited her Democratic colleagues for negotiating a new version with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that strengthens labor and environmental standards and enhances monitoring and inspection processes. It also removes “corporate gifts” to the pharmaceutical industry that would have harmed consumers, Democrats said.
The new version of the deal — known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — is better than NAFTA and “infinitely better” than the original version, Pelosi said.
It also has the support of AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, a champion of labor rights.
The deal is “far from perfect,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “But there is no denying that the trade rules in America will now be fairer because of our hard work and perseverance. Working people have created a new standard for future trade negotiations.”
Trade is a key issue for Michigan, the home of the domestic auto industry and other manufacturing. Reactions among the state’s congressional delegation ranged from those expressing enthusiastic support to others voicing serious reservations.
U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden), who represents a Southeast Michigan district including Macomb County and the Thumb, was all in.
“I am happy to see that Speaker Pelosi is finally considering the American worker and allowing the House to vote on #USMCA,” Mitchell wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “Our trade relationship with Mexico and Canada is important to #Michigan workers and businesses, and I look forward to voting yes on this important agreement.”
Freshman U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), who flipped a metro Detroit district in 2018, released an optimistic statement.
“I am encouraged by the agreement announced by Speaker Pelosi and Chairman [Richard] Neal this morning, and I look forward to reviewing the implementing legislation in full to ensure that the agreement includes adequate protections for American workers and for our environment,” said Stevens. “I have been pushing for a vote on USMCA by the end of the year because manufacturers in my district are looking for certainty, and that’s what this trade deal will bring along with jobs and economic growth.”
“Cautious optimism” were the words U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) used to describe the USMCA deal, although she had some concerns.
“This isn’t about winners or losers, it’s about doing what is right for American workers,” Dingell said in a statement. “We have a moral responsibility to help our workers. If this new deal levels the playing field, creates jobs, raises wages, brings manufacturing back to this country, and fosters innovation and technology – it will earn my vote. Every day, I see and hear about what trade agreements like NAFTA 1.0 did to American workers. Today, factories sit empty in Michigan and across my district while workers are unable to compete with sub-par, non-union workers in other country.”
However, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) has been vocal about his concerns about labor protections in the agreement. The freshman representing Macomb and Oakland counties noted his work in several unions, including SEIU, the UAW and the AFL-CIO.
“Based on my discussions about the negotiations and the reality on the ground in Mexico, I fear that this NAFTA 2.0 will not provide Mexican workers with the freedom to organize independent unions and bargain for a better life on any scale — and in the export sectors that matter most to U.S. workers in particular,” Levin said in a statement. “Only ending the deeply entrenched company union/protection contract system will raise standards for Mexican workers so we can slow the stream of American middle class jobs being transformed into low wage jobs south of the border. If the new agreement fails to accomplish that, we will spawn another generation of justifiably alienated U.S. workers. I will not stand for that.”
U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, who hails from Cascade Township in West Michigan and is the House’s only independent, wasn’t impressed by the bipartisan deal and complained it was being rushed.
“While Republicans and Democrats clamber to take credit for USMCA, it’s not at all clear it benefits Americans,” Amash tweeted. “Congress certainly needs more than a week to review it. I need evidence it’s not a worse version of NAFTA—modernized but with more protectionism to harm our economy.
Trump and leaders of Canada and Mexico signed the original version of the deal last fall and must sign off on the new language.
Pelosi expects the full House chamber to consider the USMCA this month, and Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate have been actively pushing for it.
Trump, who campaigned in 2016 on improving trade — which is credited by some for his victory in Michigan and other Midwest states — cheered the deal Tuesday.
“America’s great USMCA Trade Bill is looking good,” he tweeted. “It will be the best and most important trade deal ever made by the USA.”
If ratified, the USMCA would also give political cover to Democrats, who have been eager to show they can legislate while also pursuing an impeachment inquiry.
This is especially true for vulnerable Democrats in some of the country’s more conservative districts, who fear being charged with legislative inaction and an obsession with impeachment.
Pelosi dismissed those political calculations out of hand on Tuesday, saying: “Not anyone of us is important enough to hold up a trade agreement that is important for American workers because of any collateral benefit that might accrue to any one of us.”