House Democrats said Thursday they believe they are making progress with the Trump administration over how to fix their concerns with the new North American trade agreement, indicating a congressional vote on the measure is still possible this year.
Several lawmakers told POLITICO they had not yet seen the text U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer delivered on Wednesday in response to their concerns. But they said the fact that USTR had responded provided a boost to negotiations.
Story Continued Below
“It’s good that they got that first response out of the way, because I think that usually helps get the ball rolling a little bit more and shows people that folks are serious,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), one of the nine members of Democrats’ USMCA working group, which is leading the party’s negotiations with Lighthizer.
The formal responses USTR delivered on Wednesday afternoon marked the administration’s first attempt to address concerns Democrats have for months been raising with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement’s labor, environmental, enforcement and prescription drug provisions.
Gomez said congressional staffers were reviewing the responses ahead of a series of meetings next week: first among members of the working group, and then with Lighthizer.
“We’ll have a discussion amongst the working group members about: Is it enough? Is it acceptable? Is anything closed? And then we’ll go from there,” he said.
The two sides are likely to spend the next several weeks exchanging texts as the Trump administration continues to push for Congress to pass the agreement before the end of the year.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said earlier this week that the administration wants to “get this thing done within the next 30 to 60 days,” — a timeline House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) also embraced on Thursday.
But other Democrats maintain they will not be pushed to vote on the deal until they are able to make at least some changes to reflect the party’s priorities.
“We have to finish our back-and-forth,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters during her weekly press briefing. “We’ve made an offer, they’ve made an offer, now we sit down and see where we can find our common ground.”
Once the administration sends the final bill to Congress, neither chamber is allowed to add amendments to the bill under fast-track rules. But Pelosi has the power to change those rules to remove the deal from fast-track, which she could do if the Trump administration decides to send it without waiting for her nod. Administration officials have so far said they will not do so.
Pelosi emphasized Thursday that before the administration sends the final bill, Democrats need to see changes that ensure it is fully enforceable — something she said may require making changes to the text of the deal itself.
That could prove to be a sticking point with the Trump administration, which has so far been resistant to making changes within the pact and instead wants to strike side agreements to address Democrats’ concerns.
“If you have a sidebar letter that says we’re going to have enforcement, that does not have the force of a treaty. You have to have enforcement in the body of the treaty,” Pelosi said.
She added that “may require surgically — not opening it up for any and all, but surgically — having more clarity and more standing on what the enforcement is within the agreement.”
“In any case,” Pelosi said, “we think we’re making progress.”
That optimism was apparent on both sides of the aisle. Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, called it “good news” that House Democrats were “looking thoughtfully at the proposal” from the trade chief.
Brady, who formerly was chairman of House Ways and Means, said he believes the two sides are focusing first on finding solutions to concerns that House Democrats have raised about the agreement and would decide later the best way to implement any changes, including whether to reopen talks with Canada and Mexico.
“As you know, there are a number of ways to fine tune an agreement,” the Texas Republican said, “and I think that will be the second step.”
Doug Palmer contributed to this report.