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Trump top trade envoy sees progress in USMCA talks with Congress

President Trump’s top trade envoy, Robert E. Lighthizer, will be in the congressional hot seat for two days this week, when lawmakers are expected to grill him about prospects for a deal with China. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The administration is making progress resolving House Democrats’ objections to a proposed North American trade deal in talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Robert E. Lighthizer, the president’s chief trade negotiator, told lawmakers on Tuesday.

“My hope is that over the next couple of weeks we can make substantial progress,” Lighthizer told members of the Senate Finance Committee. “I believe we’re on track.”

The trade chief, who has said he wants bipartisan support for the deal, praised Pelosi as “completely fair and above board” in their ongoing dialogue.

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The speaker has established working groups of House Democrats to work on revisions to the agreement’s labor, environment, pharmaceuticals and enforcement terms.

The administration is pushing for Congress to quickly approve the new deal — a replacement for the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — before breaking for August recess.

“We want this to be dealt with as soon as possible,” Lighthizer said.

But Pelosi, and other senior Democrats, say the proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) must be reopened to add tougher enforcement provisions — something the administration says is unnecessary.

Lighthizer called the pact the “strongest, most momentous agreement in U.S. history,” adding that it would “help stop the outflow of manufacturing jobs and return many to the United States.”

The deal is “completely enforceable,” Lighthizer said, adding that he would work with lawmakers to make it “even more enforceable.”

The U.S. trade representative spoke shortly after President Trump confirmed he will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of this month at the G-20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan.

Trump wrote on Twitter that the two men would have an “extended meeting” in hopes of breaking a deadlock in U.S.-China trade negotiations. The talks broke down in early May after Lighthizer accused the Chinese government of reneging on several provisions they had tentatively accepted.

The administration wants China to stop coercing U.S. companies into trading their technology secrets for access to the Chinese market and to halt a widespread government-backed effort to steal U.S. trade secrets.

The president also wants to shrink the record $420 billion U.S. annual trade deficit with China by getting Beijing to accelerate its purchases of American farm, energy and industrial products.

Companies in furious bid to prevent new China tariffs as summit looms

Lighthizer spoke as companies were urging the administration to abandon plans for further tariffs on Chinese imports in the second of seven planned days of USTR hearings. More than 300 industry representatives are scheduled to testify, most in opposition to the president’s proposed 25 percent tariff on $300 billion in Chinese goods.

Trump threatened to impose the tariffs after the talks derailed last month. If he proceeds, virtually all Chinese merchandise entering the United States would be taxed, a move that would disrupt industrial supply chains and eventually lead to higher prices for consumers.

Lawmakers also are balking at the prospect of additional import taxes.

“I don’t agree that tariffs should be the tool we use in every instance to achieve our trade policy goals,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa. “Continuing to use tariffs in this way will undermine our credibility with our current and potential trading partners and undo the benefits of our historic tax reform.”

Since March 2018, the United States has collected $22 billion in tariffs levied by Trump, Grassley said.

Trump will decide on imposing more tariffs “in the next few weeks,” said Lighthizer, who defended the president’s aggressive use of the import levies to curb Chinese practices the administration describes as cheating on global trade rules.

“I don’t know if it will get them to stop cheating, tariffs alone,” he said. “I know one thing that won’t work: talking to them...Just chatting with them in a dialogue is not going to get them to change.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, the panel’s senior Democrat, criticized the president for raising the cost of consumer goods and signaling he may relax penalties imposed on Huawei, a prominent Chinese telecommunications company, in return for Chinese trade concessions.

“The president is telling China’s spymasters that he’s willing to give away America’s national security for a face-saving trade deal,” Wyden said.