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White House, congressional Democrats on cusp of revised North American trade deal

President Trump talks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the NATO summit in Watford, England, last week. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The White House and House Democrats are on the cusp of finalizing a new trade deal for North America, a major achievement for President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that comes even as Democrats prepare to impeach the president.

President Trump told reporters Monday that “we’re doing very well” in the negotiations, “hearing from unions and others that it’s looking good.”

“A lot of strides over the last 24 hours,” Trump said. “If they put it up for a vote, it’ll pass.”

In a sign that an agreement was imminent, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner are expected to be in Mexico on Tuesday to help secure the pact.

Trump could announce the revised U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement with Pelosi as soon as Tuesday on Twitter, according to a top Republican who was not authorized to speak publicly. Senate Republicans are preparing meetings for Lighthizer to brief senators on the details of the proposed agreement, including one for members of the Finance Committee later this week and another tentatively for all GOP senators next Tuesday, according to people familiar with the planning who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because plans were yet to be finalized.

Pelosi met privately Monday evening with several of her party members who have negotiated with Lighthizer for months to revise the initial trade agreement struck with Mexico and Canada for terms more favorable for Democrats. The House Democrats leaving the meeting declined to confirm a deal but signaled one was imminent, with Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) indicating that lawmakers could see “verification” of an agreement sometime Tuesday afternoon.

Neal, who was on a flurry of phone calls with Pelosi and Lighthizer over the weekend, also said the House should be able to hold a floor vote on the trade deal by the end of the year.

“If it’s where we think it is and so forth and the pieces that we thought were critically important . . . are there and get a chance to look at that, then I will be satisfied,” said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), a key figure in the party’s left flank who had also been negotiating with Lighthizer.

The breakthrough comes after months of back-and-forth between the White House, Canada and Mexico, as well as House Democrats as they crafted the revised trade agreement. Trump has said replacing the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement is a top priority of his presidency, promising that it will bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

He reached an agreement with Canada and Mexico to make changes last year, but the deal could not be finalized until Democrats agreed, as they control the House of Representatives, which must vote to approve the treaty.

Administration officials have separately indicated to key congressional committees, as well as leadership in both parties, that an agreement is close and could be announced soon, according to people familiar with the message.

White House officials hoped to have the deal secured by this week so that the House could vote on it by Christmas.

In a meeting with GOP aides on Capitol Hill, White House deputy communications director Jessica Ditto spoke about labor protections — a key priority for Democrats and unions — and stressed that the revised NAFTA includes the strongest labor provisions of any trade deal, according to several people present who were not authorized to discuss the talks publicly.

She also stressed that Republicans need to continue promoting the trade agreement — which would be one of Trump’s most significant policy achievements — well after it’s ratified.

One point that is likely to bolster support among Democrats: Top officials at the AFL-CIO planned to meet to discuss the near-agreement later Monday, union President Richard Trumka said.

Support from the AFL-CIO, which opposes the existing NAFTA and blames it for destroying millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs, would probably ensure backing from a majority of House Democrats when the deal is brought up for a vote.

Backing from the AFL-CIO would also indicate that Democrats had succeeded in negotiating stronger enforcement mechanisms and protections for labor than existed in the agreement signed by Trump and the leaders of Mexico and Canada a year ago.

“The USMCA they signed in 2018 is not going to be the same as the USMCA we see in 2019,” said Dan Ujczo, a trade lawyer with Dickinson Wright. “There are going to be significant differences.”

The pact must be ratified by the legislatures in all three countries before it can take effect.

“I got reason to believe — but there’s no concrete information I can give you — that it’s finalized,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “But I can’t — you really won’t know that for 24 hours. You’ve got three countries involved.”

Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she wants the deal to be transformative and a blueprint for future trade deals and hopes to pass it by year’s end. A Senate vote may not occur until early next year, according to several business executives following the process.

Secretive negotiations between Lighthizer and Neal have moved forward even with impeachment proceedings underway. In recent days, there have been a flurry of meetings between Lighthizer and Mexican and Canadian leaders as parties to the deal sought to iron out final sticking points.

These included provisions related to steel, iron and pharmaceutical drugs.

A spokesman for Pelosi declined to comment.

The trade agreement would replace the 25-year old NAFTA, which Trump has reviled as “the worst trade deal ever” and mark a major political win for the president. The administration has been pushing for a House vote on the new USMCA before the end of this year to avoid seeing the deal swallowed by 2020 campaign pressures.

Congress is expected to approve the revised agreement with overwhelming Republican support in both chambers. Pelosi has been working to secure a significant number of Democratic votes.

Amid the ongoing House impeachment inquiry, many moderate Democrats were reluctant to return to their districts without having voted on the trade deal. Trump, Vice President Pence and other top Republicans in recent days have lambasted Pelosi and House Democrats for failing to act on the USMCA.

Robert Costa and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.