WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a new North American trade agreement Thursday that rewrites the rules of trade with Canada and Mexico and gives President Donald Trump a major policy win before senators turn their full attention to his impeachment trial.
The vote was 89-10 and the measure now goes to Trump for his signature. It would replace the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, which tore down most trade barriers and triggered a surge in trade.
But Trump and other critics blamed that pact for encouraging U.S. companies to move their manufacturing plants south of the border to take advantage of low-wage Mexican laborers. Passage of the trade bill came one day after Trump signed a new trade agreement with China, easing trade tensions between the economic powers.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, said in a statement said that trade with Canada and Mexico is “vitally important” to Maine’s economy, saying it supports more than 53,000 jobs in Maine. She called NAFTA “deeply flawed” and said that passage of USMCA is a “step in the right direction for modernizing trade agreements.”
Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in a statement his decision to support the revised trade agreement was “a close call.” He determined it was “an improvement over NAFTA and “much better than removing the deal entirely.”
“The agreement is not perfect, but on balance it’s better than other options under consideration, so I voted yes,” King said.
The Maine senators’ vote stands in contrast with their Democratic House colleagues, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Jared Golden of the 2nd District, who both voted against the revised trade pact in mid-December. Their skepticism of the trade agreement is in line with Maine’s decades-old attitude toward free-trade agreements, which have often been blamed for the erosion of manufacturing jobs in the state.
Trump campaigned in 2016 on ripping up trade deals that he said added to the nation’s trade deficit and cost the country manufacturing jobs. He promised he would rewrite NAFTA if elected, a pact he described as “the worst trade deal in history.” He can now go to swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and tell voters he followed through on that pledge.
Mexico has approved the revised trade deal. Canada is expected to do so in coming months, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government long insisting it would wait for U.S. approval before proceeding.
The agreement aims to have more cars produced in the United States, where workers earn an average of at least $16 an hour. It also secured changes that require Mexico to change its laws to make it easier for workers to form independent unions, which should improve worker conditions and wages and reduce the incentive for U.S. companies to relocate their plants.
While the administration completed its negotiations with Canada and Mexico more than a year ago, Democrats in the House insisted on changes that they said made it more likely Mexico would follow through on its commitments. As part of those negotiations, the administration agreed to drop a provision that offered expensive biologic drugs — made from living cells — 10 years of protection from cheaper knockoff competition.
Republicans and the president have complained about how long it took to complete the negotiations, but the talks resulted in a rare mix of support for the trade deal. The AFL-CIO, an association of trade unions, endorsed the measure, as did scores of business and farm groups. Despite the AFL-CIO endorsement, other labor groups, including United Auto Workers and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said that the revised North American trade pact did not resolve “the problems” created by NAFTA.
The biggest holdouts were environmental groups, which continue their opposition, saying the deal doesn’t address climate change. Indeed, they contend the agreement would contribute to rising temperatures.
“Despite the fact that it includes very good labor provisions, I am voting against USMCA because it does not address climate change, the greatest threat facing the planet,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.
BDN writer Christopher Burns contributed to this report.