Brushing off doubts, Pence says U.S. will approve USMCA ‘by summer’

Brushing off doubts, Pence says U.S. will approve USMCA ‘by summer’
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has pledged to win Congressional approval for the new North American free trade agreement “by the summer,” even as a heated public fight between U.S. President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi adds a new hurdle to the deal’s passage.

Touting the revamped trade pact as a “win-win-win” agreement, Pence downplayed the impact of the Trump-Pelosi feud during a visit to Ottawa Thursday, suggesting the deal represented a historic opportunity to strengthen ties between Canada and the U.S.

“Our administration is working earnestly in the Congress of the United States to approve the USMCA this summer,” Pence said. “The people of Canada and the United States know this agreement is superior to its predecessor in every way in the interests of jobs and growth and working people and investment and all the things that can improve the economies of our country and yours.”

The ongoing softwood lumber dispute, the detention of two Canadians in China and continued Canadian access to the U.S. market for uranium — currently the subject of a U.S. Commerce Department national security investigation — were also discussed during Pence’s meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But staking out a route to ratification for the new North American free trade agreement was at the top of the agenda. The Liberals took key procedural steps this week to set the stage for ratification – including presenting implementing legislation for the deal – after U.S. tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum imports were dropped on May 21.

Mexico, which had joined Canada in refusing to ratify the new NAFTA while the levies remained, was to send the pact on Thursday to the Senate, where it should be ratified “soon,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said.

Even so, ratification by a Democrat-controlled Congress remains far from certain, analysts say. Those lawmakers still want changes to the deal’s provisions on pharmaceuticals, labour and the environment. And the spat between Pelosi and Trump — which surfaced after a White House infrastructure meeting ended in an exchange of insults with Trump suggesting the trade deal was too complicated for Pelosi to understand — only adds to those challenges.

As House Leader, Pelosi will decide if and when the new NAFTA advances to a vote in Congress and could do much to delay its progress.

“One of the obstacles was removed when Trump lifted the tariffs,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “But now there’s a new one. There are all these medium-sized to big issues where Democrats want to see changes and there have to be negotiations before they can get a vote in Congress. So Pence is trying to get Canada to ratify as a way of getting some momentum going. If Canada ratifies, it’ll be viewed as a milestone.”

There’s also a sense that if Mexico and Canada ratify it’ll give the deal some momentum with the Democrats.

Todd Tucker, fellow, Roosevelt Institute

Pence brushed off questions about the dispute during a press conference, saying his administration was making “significant progress” and remained determined to work with both the Democrat leadership and the “rank and file” in advancing the deal.

“We remain confident the USMCA will receive broad based support in Congress if it gets to a vote,” he said.

The Trump administration needs to get the new NAFTA passed by summer or risk the deal being pushed onto the back burner when the U.S. presidential election season ramps up in the fall. The Trump-Pelosi fight, combined with ongoing disputes over former U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign, make a summer ratification “very unlikely,” said Todd Tucker, a fellow at the New York-based Roosevelt Institute.

“I think they are very much stuck here at home with House Democrats who do not want to cooperate and they are very much slowing next steps,” said Tucker. “So if you’re running a campaign with targets who won’t talk to you, what do you do? You go to Ottawa, fill the time. There’s also a sense that if Mexico and Canada ratify it’ll give the deal some momentum with the Democrats.”

So if (the Republicans are) running a campaign with targets who won’t talk to you, what do you do? You go to Ottawa, fill the time.

Todd Tucker, fellow, Roosevelt Institute

Pence and Trudeau also touched on each country’s diplomatic issues with China and the potential security threat posed by Huawei Technologies Co.

“We consider Huawei incompatible with the security interests of the United States of America or our allies in freedom-loving nations across the world,” Pence said.

He also voiced support for the two Canadian men detained in China in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, on an extradition request from the U.S.

The Trump administration “has spoken out strongly about the arrest and detention of two Canadian citizens in China,” Pence said. “Just know that we stand with you.”

Pence’s comments seemed designed to strike a new tone in Washington’s relationship with Ottawa, following 17 months of often rocky negotiations on the new NAFTA and a fraught Group of Seven Summit that ended with Trump labelling Trudeau “weak” and “dishonest.”

“President Trump and I believe the relationship between the United States and Canada has never been stronger and that is a reflection of his leadership and your leadership,” Pence told Trudeau.

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