Despite the increasingly poisonous relationship between Trump and Democrats on other fronts, the trade deal is a singular issue where a bipartisan agreement seems possible that both sides could claim as a win. If it is going to happen, though, it has to be as soon as possible after lawmakers return to the Capitol in early September, before the 2020 presidential campaign erases all chances for bipartisan policymaking.
“There’s not a deadline, but the closer we get to the next election, the harder it is,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday. A vote on the deal must occur in the House before a Senate vote, essentially giving Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) veto power over whether it can move forward.
“Speaker Pelosi and I am united in that we believe you need strong and enforceable labor protections in this bill,” said Schumer, highlighting his demands for environmental and labor protections and changes related to prescription drugs. “If that doesn’t happen, there won’t be a bill, plain and simple.”
Democrats have been making similar demands for months, but behind the scenes, theysay that differences are narrowing after meetings between U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and House Democratic working groups. Talks will continue throughout August and have reached a decision-making stage after Democrats laid out their demands in some detail and await a response from Lighthizer.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative declined to offercomment, but a senior administration official said of Democrats’ demands: “I think there are solutions to all of the concerns that have been raised.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing talks.
As that work proceeds, Vice President Pence is taking the lead for the administration in trying to increase pressure on Democrats in manufacturing regions, red states and elsewhere. He has appeared at around two dozen events with manufacturers, farmers and others in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and elsewhere, and more appearances are planned for August.
Pence’s efforts are being amplified by a coalition called Trade Works for America, which Pence’s now-chief of staff, Marc Short, founded in February with Phil Cox, former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. The group plans to spend $8 million in August in more than 50 targeted House districts, including many that are held by Democrats but were won by Trump in 2016.
“We’re going to be trying to focus our events on those places that have Democrats who need the political cover and need to be hearing about this back home,” Cox said. “There is consensus that this is good policy. Our goal at Trade Works is to make sure it’s also good politics for Democrats in competitive districts.”
For Democrats who might be reluctant to deny Trump a major political win heading into the 2020 election, the motivation for working with his administration is to help their voters by improving on NAFTA, which even supporters say needs updates. Many Democrats say the original deal contributed to a decline in American manufacturing, the exporting of jobs, and wage stagnation.
The new deal includes provisions aimed at helping American workers, including requiring that at least 40 percent of auto parts be made by people earning $16 an hour. More auto parts would have to be manufactured in North America, environmental protections are included and Canada’s dairy market would be opened to U.S. producers.
Democrats are focused on making sure all these provisions are enforceable, particularly the rules on higher labor standards. If they succeed, they say, they’ll be able to declare victory for their voters just as much as Trump will for his.
“I want to get to yes, and Trump will try to benefit from this, and we’ll make clear, including labor to its members, that Trump was dragged kicking and screaming into doing this, into protecting workers,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
As a presidential candidate, Trump campaigned hard against NAFTA, calling it the worst deal ever and threatening to pull out of it, a threat he could still use to try to force Congress’s hand. But Lighthizer, a former GOP Senate staffer, has worked hard to cultivate relationships with House Democrats and by all accounts has managed to maintain their trust even as Democrats have clashed with other Trump administration officials.
“I often say there is an underlying dodge, delay and deceive strategy among the administration,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), who is part of the House Democratic trade working groups. But Lighthizer “hasn’t been like that at all,” Gomez said.
“He’s been willing to engage, and he’s been showing up,” Gomez said.
Mindful of Pelosi’s critical role in bringing the deal to fruition, administration officials including Trump have sought to cultivate her and demonstrate respect and patience in talks on the trade deal. As a result, the negotiations have remained remarkably divorced from the political fray, even as Trump has taken a raft of impulsive actions on other areas in trade, including announcing new tariffs Thursday on Chinese goods entering the United States.
Administration officials had long hoped the House would approve the new trade deal before the August recess, but Pelosi has refused to commit to a specific timetable despite pressure from administration officials to do so. Nonetheless, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) insisted this week that Trump must remain patient with Pelosi if he wants the deal to be approved.
“It’s very necessary that the president hold his patience, because nothing’s going to happen if Pelosi doesn’t want it to happen,” Grassley said. “And so far we’ve had patience and we better keep our patience. And so somebody there in the White House that doesn’t have common sense better not push the president to do something erratic.”
The politics of trade cut across party lines, and Pelosi, who dramatically parted ways with Barack Obama over trade during his administration, will have a difficult balance to strike as she weighs whether and when to move forward with the deal.
“Certainly she wants to see the majority of Democrats to be supportive,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) — but whether a majority of House Democrats can be brought to support the deal remains to be seen. Some Democratic presidential candidates also have begun to take aim at the deal, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) attacking it in the recent debate for allowing pharmaceutical companies longer exclusive rights to some drugs, a feature that House Democrats have also criticized.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.