U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has signaled to lawmakers doubts about the effectiveness of President Donald Trump’s threat to withdraw from NAFTA as a way to force a divided Congress to vote on a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.
In recent discussions with Democratic lawmakers, Lighthizer indicated he is not necessarily supportive of that tactic and is instead committed to a constructive dialogue for getting the deal passed in Congress next year, according to sources on Capitol Hill with knowledge of recent meetings.
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Lighthizer made clear in one recent conversation with a Democratic lawmaker that the White House would be making the decision to potentially withdraw from NAFTA on its own, said one source familiar with the exchange.
“It was implied that Lighthizer might disagree with using the threat of withdrawal as a negotiating tactic, but that wasn’t said directly,” the source said.
USTR did not immediately answer a request for comment.
Lighthizer has avoided pushing back publicly against Trump‘s desire to withdraw from NAFTA but he hasn’t supported the move either.
“That’s a decision that’s up to the president of the United States,” Lighthizer said during an appearance on CBS‘s “Face the Nation“ on Sunday.
Earlier this month, Trump said he would terminate the current trade deal “within a relatively short period of time.”
“Congress will have a choice of the USMCA or pre-NAFTA, which worked very well,” he said shortly after attending the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.
The new deal is expected to face resistance in Congress next year, when Democrats control the House. Democratic lawmakers will likely push for language that will ramp up enforcement of the deal’s labor and environment provisions, although it’s unclear if that will force Lighthizer to return to the negotiating table or if changes can be made around the edges through implementing legislation.
Some U.S. labor unions have already denounced the deal in its current form, saying it does not go far enough to ensure that Mexico will live up to commitments to protect worker rights.
After a Dec. 6 meeting with Lighthizer, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the new deal “just a list without real enforcement of the labor and environmental protections.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have warned against terminating the deal.
A spokesperson for Pelosi said it was “disappointing but not surprising” that Trump would try to force Congress’ hand “instead of working constructively with Congress to improve his proposed agreement to actually protect and strengthen American workers.”
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who chairs the moderate New Democrat Coalition, reiterated to Lighthizer in a meeting on Friday that threatening withdrawal “will create economic chaos and not build the trust necessary for bipartisan progress.“
In a statement after the meeting, Himes added that Lighthizer expressed interest in “engaging closely“ with members of Congress.
Lighthizer has long expressed confidence in being able to build a bipartisan consensus for the new trade deal. The agreement answered concerns from the left over a dispute process that allowed private investors to seek monetary damages from the government through extra-judicial arbitration panels. The new deal also creates less incentives for auto makers to produce cars in Mexico by including a wage standard in rules that determine how much content must be produced in North America for a vehicle to qualify for a tariff cut.
After the deal was signed in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, Lighthizer told reporters that Democratic leaders will be “very much involved in the process moving forward and will have an influence, a strong influence.”
He added: “I want them not only to vote for it, I want them to be happy with the agreement.”
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