Toomey’s aides declined to comment on the private call. But the senator — who had opposed the initial draft of the agreement struck by the Trump administration with Mexico and Canada last year — said the administration had given far too many concessions at the expense of Republican priorities.
“In fairness to Bob Lighthizer, there was a lot of discussion early on. But in the last few weeks, the discussion certainly didn’t include me,” Toomey said Tuesday. The negotiations “seemed to be a, you know, just a one-way direction in the direction of the Democrats.”
The disagreement came amid signs of growing GOP discontent with multiple accommodations Trump has made to win support from Democrats to secure legislative victories.
The revised trade agreement with Canada and Mexico won the enthusiastic support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on Tuesday, with the union’s backing signaling to many Republicans that the trade deal was perhaps not in their favor. On Monday, lawmakers unveiled a White House-backed defense bill that includes 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal workers, despite the additional government spending that the new benefits would entail.
The moves reflect Trump’s eagerness to secure legislative accomplishments he can highlight during his 2020 presidential campaign, as well as the White House’s confidence that it risks little backlash from a GOP increasingly molded in Trump’s image, according to congressional and administration aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics.
Amid increased feuding between the White House and congressional Democrats over the impeachment probe, the major bipartisan compromises appeared surprising — even as they angered some congressional Republicans.
Pelosi told other House Democrats during a closed-door meeting Tuesday that “we ate their lunch,” referring to multiple changes White House officials made to the trade deal in recent weeks to win the support from labor groups.
And even as he waged a weeks-long pressure campaign against House Democrats to pry loose the stalled trade deal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was candid about his view of the agreement on its merits.
“From my perspective, it’s not as good as I had hoped,” McConnell said Tuesday. “But we’ll have to take a look at the whole package.”
Trump agreed to make pro-labor changes to the revised North American Free Trade Agreement as he sought congressional backing for one of his top campaign promises. And the parental-leave change is part of a bill that would create a Space Force branch of the military. Trump first floated the idea of Space Force last year, and many of his supporters have rallied behind the idea.
If approved, the parental-leave plan will represent the biggest expansion for federal workers in nearly three decades — despite opposition to the measure from the GOP senator tasked with overseeing government affairs and some private heartburn from Republicans about additional spending to benefit federal bureaucrats.
Even with some GOP discontent, White House officials praised the trade agreement as a signature victory for Trump. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham called it “the biggest and best trade deal in the history of the world.”
Some other Republicans were also supportive.
“Passage of USMCA will be a significant win for farmers, workers and all Americans,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), another influential trade voice among Senate Republicans, said in a statement. “Renegotiating NAFTA was a central campaign promise made by President Trump. He kept his word and Americans will enjoy the many benefits of this upgraded trade deal as a result.”
More legislative compromises could be within reach.
House and Senate leaders have begun negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on a new spending package that would keep the government open after current funding expires Dec. 20. The White House is expected to agree to fund numerous Democratic priorities and move far away from its call earlier this year to slash spending in numerous programs.
The policy compromises come during a period of increased hostility between the White House and Democratic lawmakers over the impeachment probe. Just minutes before Pelosi boasted of the changes to the trade deal, House Democrats unveiled two articles of impeachment against the president over his conduct related to Ukraine.
“Trump wants to be seen as a guy who can accomplish things and make deals, and Democrats want to show they’re not just about investigating and impeding the president,” said Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Bolstering the White House’s negotiation position, the administration’s efforts to triangulate in the year-end crush of legislating are unlikely to spur a mass defection of GOP votes, particularly on traditional conservative priorities such as defense and trade.
But those efforts have still prompted a round of grumbling from Republican lawmakers.
“I’m concerned he’s sort of gone radio silent as far as communicating with Republicans,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) — who has been acutely interested in the trade deal, which would significantly affect his border state — said of Lighthizer before the finalized agreement was announced.
Stressing that he wants to review the deal, Cornyn added: “My concern is that what the administration presented has now been moved demonstrably to Democrats, the direction they wanted. And anything that gets the AFL-CIO’s endorsement . . . could be problematic.”
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), the chief vote counter for Senate Republicans, added, “If they got the unions, my assumption is there are going to be a lot of things that were changed from the last time that we’ve seen anything on this.” He said it was possible that the administration would lose Republican votes with its concessions to Democrats.
The White House downplayed the GOP concerns.
“The administration and Congress agreed to a few changes to the USMCA that further enhance protections for workers and the environment, including through strong new mechanisms to ensure those provisions are enforced,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said. “USMCA was already the best trade agreement ever negotiated, and these changes further strengthen the agreement for American workers and our economy.”
Trump’s strong grip on his party has long kept a GOP rebellion at bay, even with steep ideological disagreements on issues such as foreign policy and trade. Senior Republicans privately concede that while the administration may have lost some GOP votes as it negotiated with Democrats on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, it is still likely to be ratified in the Senate early next year.
House leaders expect a floor vote on the USMCA later this month. McConnell said Tuesday that a Senate vote will not come until after Trump’s impeachment trial. The trial is expected to begin in January.
Democrats have emphasized that they won inclusion of new protections for workers’ rights and scrapped part of the initial agreement that would have raised prescription drug prices.
“The same Republicans who are complaining they are not included are also too scared to vote against [Trump]. So why would he bother negotiating with them?” said an aide to a GOP senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss caucus dynamics.
The defense package is expected to pass as well, probably by the end of the year. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chair of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, initially objected to the expansion of parental leave for more than 2 million workers.
But after receiving a call from the White House over the weekend, Johnson appeared prepared to go along with Trump’s marching orders. He told reporters that the package was a “done deal,” even if he thought Wisconsin factory workers would resent giving paid leave for “privileged federal employees.”
Johnson declined to elaborate on who from the White House called him or the contents of the conversation.
Other Senate Republicans also appeared willing to accept the administration’s compromise.
“When you look at the whole list of things that we had that were so significant for our positions and you gave up one thing, it’s a great swap,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.