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Neal: New NAFTA will have ‘very hard’ path through Congress

March 4, 2019
In The News

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal will play a decisive role in getting Congress to approve President Donald Trump's new North American trade pact. As of now, he predicts it won’t be an easy sell for the Trump administration.

“Look, it’s going to be very hard to do this,” Neal said in an interview with POLITICO.

Several Democratic and GOP lawmakers alike have already said they are unhappy with parts of how the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is written, making it increasingly clear that a tough road lies ahead for getting the deal through both chambers of Congress.

Neal, who leads the powerful House committee responsible for trade issues, emphasized that he hasn’t made up his mind about USMCA, which the three countries renegotiated last year to take the place of NAFTA.

For his part, Neal stressed that it was too early to know what it will take for Democrats to support the deal. Congress has not yet seen the draft bill text of USMCA that they would have to approve, he noted.

But the Massachusetts Democrat offered an early look at his road map for vetting the deal that Trump has lauded as a "truly groundbreaking achievement."

“There seem to be at the moment three paths here and that is: a new NAFTA; a status quo NAFTA if nothing happens; and then a third option, where the president has said he’ll take us out of NAFTA,” Neal said.

“I don’t think there’s anyone that thinks the status quo [with the original NAFTA] is appropriate,” he said. “So, if you leap to the next manifestation, it’s ‘How do you satisfy the critics that you really have improved the trade pact?‘ And I think that’s going to require a lot of effort on the U.S. trade representative’s part.”

That means U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will have to make a strong sell on the merits of the new agreement, Neal said.

Some House Democrats have already said they won’t vote for the agreement unless the administration addresses their concerns about how the pact’s labor and environmental standards will be enforced. Others are seeking less-stringentprescription drug pricing provisions.

Asked whether he thinks renegotiation would be necessary, he said: "I don’t know yet. We really haven’t had anything yet to wrap our arms around."

Neal's response walks back comments he made last week that indicated he was not in favor of reopening the agreement. He said then that there would be "ample opportunity" for lawmakers to discuss the deal once a copy of the bill text is sent to Congress for their review.

Neal said the key issue he’s looking at is “enforcement, enforcement, enforcement.” He also said another "consideration" is Democrats’ concerns that the new deal could lock in higher prices for a costly class of drugs that have shown promise in treating cancer and other serious illnesses.

Several lawmakers have told POLITICO that the U.S. trade chief has become more engaged with lawmakers in recent months, often taking their calls to listen to specific concerns.

Neal's chairmanship could bode well for building the necessary support for congressional approval of USMCA. He is known for his ability to work across the aisle as a deal-maker, which could be critical to helping House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deliver the necessary Democratic votes if party leaders decide to back the deal.

Neal refrained from offering a timeline for when Congress will consider the deal, but said he doesn’t believe the Trump administration would drop the agreement on them without having a stronger sense of where the vote count lies.

Some administration officials have expressed a desire for the agreement to get a vote by summer. That would give Trump a chance to tout a clear campaign promise achievement as the 2020 race gets underway.

But a number of lawmakers are waiting for the results of an International Trade Commission report analyzing the economic impact of the deal, which likely won’t be out until April. That would leave a very small window for Congress to sign off on USMCA before lawmakers go on summer break and 2020 campaigning heats up.

Neal suggested that Congress won’t be able to meet the administration’s ambitious timeline. “Having witnessed many of these trade agreements over the years seldom do you ever meet the proposed deadline,” he said.