“I don’t know that they’re ever going to get a vote because they are all fighting,” Trump said Wednesday of House Democrats, accusing them of creating a “manufactured crisis.”
The president and his chief trade negotiator also differed publicly over prospects for congressional action. Speaking at the signing ceremony for a new U.S.-Japan tariff-cutting deal, Trump interrupted U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer as he was predicting an eventual House vote.
“And it’s possible they won’t vote,” Trump said. “I mean, I know these people much better than you do.”
The impeachment push has injected even more uncertainty into political decisions that were already frought.
Numerous Republicans have said the impeachment inquiry changes everything. Democrats are trying to forge ahead, multitasking on trade and budget talks while also preparing for impeachment.
The immediate impact of this new dynamic will be felt on spending and trade decisions.
The White House and lawmakers must agree to a new spending deal by Nov. 21, and prospects for an easy resolution were already dim because of a fight over border wall funding. The White House also wants Congress to pass a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada by the end of this autumn, a timeline that could now be impossible to meet.
The awkward balance was on display Wednesday morning, when House Democrats met to discuss their concerns over the revised North American Free Trade Agreement. They are trying to negotiate changes with the White House, but the meeting came less than 24 hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) launched an impeachment inquiry.
White House officials have spent months trying to assuage the concerns of House Democrats’ and labor unions in order to ratify the new trade deal, but several key elements remain unresolved. Democrats remain unconvinced that new labor rules will be adequately enforced, for example, and they have sought assurances from Trump.
The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), issued a stark warning that the new trade deal, called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, was at risk because of impeachment politics.
“If Democrats use impeachment proceedings as a basis to not act on policy that will directly benefit Americans like the USMCA or lowering prescription drug prices, that would prove they’re more interested in politics and opposing the president at all costs than serving the American people,” Grassley said Tuesday evening.
The White House has offered competing views, with some officials saying all talks will halt, but others holding out hope for some progress.
In comments to reporters, Trump seemed unsure of what the result might be. But in a research note, the financial firm Raymond James & Associates offered a more stark assessment, saying “legislating is dead.”
That view isn’t unanimous.
“There could be a lane for USMCA approval to show that Congress can get things done while the investigations continue,” said Dan Ujczo, a trade attorney with Dickinson Wright. And there could be precedent for this.
Congress has juggled trade and impeachment questions in the past. In 1973, House lawmakers passed what became the Trade Act of 1974 even as their impeachment inquiry of President Richard M. Nixon was getting underway, said Rufus Yerxa, president of the National Foreign Trade Council.
The White House on Wednesday signaled that Trump would proceed with his agenda without cooperation from Congress.
“They want to make a deal very badly,” Trump told reporters, referring to the prospects of a trade deal with China. “It could happen. It could happen sooner than you think.”
Similarly, the president Wednesday signed what the White House called “the first stage” of a comprehensive trade deal with Japan, which will open roughly $7 billion worth of Japanese agricultural markets to American farmers.
Following Wednesday’s signing in New York with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the administration said Japan had agreed to “eliminate or significantly lower tariffs” on products including American beef, wheat, pork, and poultry.
In return, the U.S. agreed to drop its trade barriers on industrial goods such as machine tools, steam turbines and bicycles. The White House believes trade deals with Japan and China don’t need congressional approval.
Prospects for action on issues such as drug prices, infrastructure or guns were already slim as campaigning intensified ahead of the 2020 election. With impeachment in the headlines, those issues could be dead for good — although Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters he got a call from the White House late Tuesday with assurances that gun negotiations are still very much ongoing.
But trade was the one area where bipartisan negotiations had appeared to be proceeding. The issue offered the prospect for a win for both Trump and Democrats. Trump campaigned in 2016 on replacing NAFTA. Many Democrats hoped for a deal that would offer better protections for workers and enforceable standards on the environment.
Indeed, some House moderates who’ve yet to back impeachment said they want to show constituents that they’re able to produce bipartisan accomplishments.
“That’s always a priority for me, but probably even more so now . . . to show the people who sent me here that I’m willing and able to transcend party to do what’s right for the American people,” said Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah).
Failure on trade would be a blow to Trump and lawmakers of both parties. But Congress faces one task it cannot shirk: funding the government to prevent another shutdown like the one that crippled Washington for 35 days last winter.
That job, too, could become tougher amid an impeachment fight, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.).
“I was here before when the House impeached [President Bill] Clinton, and . . . it becomes the order of the day,” Shelby said.