January 25, 2020
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Maine’s congressional delegation skeptical or muted on revised NAFTA trade pact

Evan Vucci | AP
Evan Vucci | AP
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrive for a round table meeting during a NATO leaders meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, in this Dec. 4, 2019, file photo. Trump and House Democrats on Tuesday announced an agreement to update a trade deal with Canada and Mexico.

WASHINGTON — House Democrats and the White House announced a deal on a modified North American trade pact, handing President Donald Trump a major Capitol Hill win Tuesday on the same day that impeachment charges were announced against him.

Both sides said the revamped U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement was a significant improvement over the original North American Free Trade Agreement. Democrats crowed about stronger enforcement provisions while Republicans said it will help keep the economy humming, though reaction was muted or skeptical from members of Maine’s congressional delegation.

“There is no question of course that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in announcing the agreement, saying the pact is “infinitely better than what was initially proposed by the administration.”

Trump said the revamped trade pact will “be great” for the United States. The announcement came on the same morning Democrats outlined impeachment charges against Trump. The trade pact is Trump’s top Capitol Hill priority along with funding for his long-sought border fence.

In Mexico City, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland joined Mexican officials to sign the updated version of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, or USMCA, at a ceremony in Mexico City’s centuries-old National Palace.

A U.S. House vote is likely before Congress adjourns for the year and the Senate is likely to vote in January or February. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the vote on the trade deal will likely occur after an expected impeachment trial in the Senate.

Pelosi was the key congressional force behind the deal, which updates the 25-year-old NAFTA accord that many Democrats — especially from manufacturing areas hit hard by trade-related job losses — have long lambasted.

NAFTA eliminated most tariffs and other trade barriers involving the United States, Mexico and Canada. Critics, including Trump, labor unions and many Democratic lawmakers, branded the pact a job killer for the United States because it encouraged factories to move south of the border, capitalize on low-wage Mexican workers and ship products back to the U.S. duty free.

The 1990s-era agreement and other similar and sweeping trade deal have long been unpopular among Maine politicians of both parties as a symbol of the decline of traditional manufacturing industries including paper mills. While business interests have noted that trade-related jobs increased greatly here since 1992, a 2003 study for the Maine Legislature found that the state may have lost 800 manufacturing jobs as a result.

Maine’s two Democratic U.S. representatives, Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Jared Golden of the 2nd District, had been skeptical of earlier Trump-proposed versions of the overhaul. Golden called it “NAFTA 2.0” in a February statement and was skeptical on Tuesday.

“We haven’t seen the text or the implementing legislation for the trade deal announced today, but I believe it’s too soon to say it won’t repeat the mistakes of past trade agreements,” he said in a statement. “No deal of this magnitude is worth an eleventh-hour vote if it isn’t substantially different from the NAFTA 2.0 proposal released earlier this year.

On Tuesday, Pingree said the final deal “must include provisions to protect American jobs from outsourcing and address the climate emergency by setting goals for greenhouse gas reductions.” If not, “it will not be the best deal for Maine,” she said.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said she welcomed news of the agreement and looked forward to reviewing the terms. A spokesman for Sen. Angus King, an independent, said the senator was “evaluating its impact on Maine workers and the state economy.” Golden’s office didn’t comment.

Weeks of back-and-forth, closely monitored by Democratic labor allies such as the AFL-CIO, have brought the two sides together. The original NAFTA badly divided Democrats but the new pact is more protectionist and labor-friendly, and Pelosi is confident it won’t divide the party, though some liberal activists took to social media to carp at the agreement.

“There is no denying that the trade rules in America will now be fairer because of our hard work and perseverance. Working people have created a new standard for future trade negotiations,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “President Trump may have opened this deal. But working people closed it.”

Republican leaders and lawmakers have agitated for months for the accord but Pelosi has painstakingly worked to bring labor on board. Democrats see the pact as significantly better than NAFTA and Trumka’s endorsement is likely to add to a strong vote by Democrats that have proven skeptical of trade agreements.

The pact contains provisions designed to nudge manufacturing back to the United States. For example, it requires that 40 percent to 45 percent of cars eventually be made in countries that pay autoworkers at least $16 an hour — that is, in the United States and Canada and not in Mexico.

The trade pact picked up some momentum after Mexico in April passed a labor-law overhaul required by USMCA. The reforms are meant to make it easier for Mexican workers to form independent unions and bargain for better pay and working conditions, narrowing the gap with the United States.

Democrats succeeded in tossing overboard a 10-year protection for manufacturers of new drugs, including so-called biologics, that had won a reprieve from lower-cost competition in the original accord. But Pelosi lost out in a bid to repeal a provision in a 1996 law that gives social media companies like Facebook broad immunity from lawsuits over the content they publish on their platforms.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, offered a rare conservative voice against the accord, which he said veered to the left and “undermines the free flow of capital” from the U.S. to its trading partners.

“This is basically NAFTA with a few modernizations, and some restrictions on trade and an expiration date. If people think that’s a huge improvement than I guess they’ll be happy with it,” Toomey told reporters. “If people think free trade is important, they’ll presumably see it as the step backward that I see it as.’’

Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Mark Stevenson of the Associated Press and Bangor Daily News writers Michael Shepherd and Caitlin Andrews contributed to this story.

 



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