Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Senate Passes Revised NAFTA, Sending Pact to Trump’s Desk

The New York Times
By on January 17, 2020

Trucks headed for the border crossing into Texas, in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, June 7, 2019. Congress gave final approval to President Donald Trump’s revised North American Free Trade Agreement on Jan. 16, 2020, as House lawmakers prepared to read charges of high crimes and misdemeanors on the Senate floor. (Alejandro Cartagena/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Congress on Thursday gave final approval to President Donald Trump’s revised North American Free Trade Agreement, handing the president his second trade victory of the week as the Senate prepared to try him for high crimes and misdemeanors.

The 89-10 vote in the Senate on implementing legislation for the revised United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement will send the measure to Trump, who is expected to sign it next week. The vote came just one day after Trump signed a long-awaited trade deal with China, giving the president two trade wins in a single week.

The unusual show of bipartisan support for the North American trade deal came just before House impeachment managers formally presented the charges against Trump, offering a striking contrast.

The competing narrative of a president who has achieved big economic wins while facing accusations of misdeeds while in office may wind up being Trump’s lasting legacy.

At the White House on Thursday, Trump complained about the trade deals being overshadowed by the impeachment proceedings.

“I did the biggest deal ever done in the history of our country yesterday in terms of trade,” he said, referring to the China deal, “and that was the second story to a total hoax. Today we just had passed the USMCA. It’s going to take the place of NAFTA, which was a terrible deal, and the USMCA will probably be second to this witch hunt hoax, which hopefully everyone knows is not going anywhere. There was nothing done wrong.”

While USMCA sailed through both the House and Senate, its approval was far from guaranteed a year ago, when Trump initially signed an agreement with Mexico and Canada.

A core group of House Democrats, working with their Senate counterparts, spent months negotiating new language that ultimately strengthened labor, environmental, pharmaceutical and enforcement provisions. The length of those negotiations pushed the House vote to December, less than 24 hours after the chamber voted to impeach Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Lawmakers initially suggested that a Senate vote on the pact would be delayed until after the trial, which will begin in earnest Tuesday and eat into the Senate’s time for legislative work. But when Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California decided to delay sending the articles of impeachment, senators seized the opportunity to move on the trade pact.

“Our farmers and ranchers expect us to move on this,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a prominent advocate for the deal’s passage, said at a news conference Tuesday.

“Folks back home, they don’t care what’s going on in this bubble surrounding impeachment. They just simply want to know, are we doing the work that’s important to them?” she said.

Within nine days, six Senate committees had given the implementing legislation seals of approval, allowing for the vote to occur Thursday morning before the impeachment trial formally began.

“Undaunted by those who set to throw him out of office since Day 1, President Trump forges ahead for the good of the American people,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “Passage of USMCA is better late than never.”

The bipartisan support for the deal came at a moment when partisan politics have stymied most legislative efforts. In part because of the Democratic stamp on the pact’s terms, 37 Democrats joined 51 Republicans in voting for the deal, including opponents of the original NAFTA and others typically averse to trade pacts.

“I never thought I’d be voting for a trade agreement during my Senate tenure that I wrote a big part of,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, whose vote for the pact was his first for a trade agreement in a quarter-century. Brown embraced the measure after labor enforcement language that he and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., crafted was included in the final agreement.

Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, sat with members of his staff in the Senate gallery looking on as senators cast their votes. At least one senator — Rob Portman, R-Ohio and a former trade representative — walked upstairs to chat with him during the vote.

In 1993, NAFTA passed the Senate on a 61-38 vote, and the deal has since been criticized by lawmakers across Capitol Hill for enabling the flow of U.S. jobs to Mexico. A substantial part of the new agreement is dedicated to updating that original text, adding revised guidelines for food safety, e-commerce and online data flows as well as anti-corruption provisions.

But there are significant changes in the deal negotiated by Trump’s trade staff and Democrats, including higher thresholds for how much of a car must be made in North America in order to avoid tariffs. It rolls back a special system of arbitration for corporations that has drawn bipartisan condemnation and also includes additional provisions designed to help identify and prevent labor violations, particularly in Mexico.

Support from a number of prominent labor voices, including the AFL-CIO’s first endorsement of a trade agreement in 18 years, helped firm up the support of Democrats like Brown, Wyden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The only Republican to vote against the deal was Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, who Wednesday criticized it as “a badly flawed agreement, an agreement that restricts trade rather than expanding trade.”

Senators who opposed the plan did so mainly out of concern about the deal’s lack of provisions to combat climate change. Those voting against the pact included Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., another presidential contender; and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.; Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., rounded out the Democrats who voted against the deal.

“When it comes to climate change, the agreement still contains many of the same flaws of the original NAFTA, which I voted against,” Schumer said in a statement Thursday.

Harris had expressed similar concerns, saying in a statement earlier this week that “by not addressing climate change, the USMCA fails to meet the crises of this moment.”

But the majority of lawmakers argued that the deal was enough of an improvement over the original NAFTA, which was first passed more than a quarter-century ago, to warrant their support.

In a rare gesture for a Thursday in the Senate — typically the final day of the weekly session, when senators are rushing to catch flights back to the district — lawmakers remained in the chamber after the vote.

Instead of leaving for the weekend, they took their seats to wait for Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead impeachment manager, to begin reading aloud the articles of impeachment.

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