WASHINGTON — House Democrats and the White House have reached a deal to advance President Donald Trump’s renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement after months of negotiations for changes on Democratic priorities, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday morning.
“There is no question of course that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA,” Pelosi said at a news conference.
If ratified, the trade deal would represent Trump’s primary legislative success since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives last November. The pact is also viewed as essential by a number of Democratic freshmen from more conservative districts, who not only support the deal on its substance but also believe a bipartisan achievement will play well on the campaign trail.
Asked why Democrats would hand Trump a victory on a major legislative priority even as the House proceeds with articles of impeachment, Pelosi said: “We’re declaring victory for the American worker and what is in this agreement.”
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal said completion of the deal came after a round of intense discussions and phone calls between key parties over the weekend.
Neal told CNN after the announcement the tentative plan is to hold a full vote on the deal next week, taking the deal straight to the floor without holding a markup hearing on it.
“We don’t expect any hurdles,” he said.
A nine-member working group of House Democrats had met for months with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer behind closed doors to seek changes related to pharmaceuticals, environmental and labor protections, and enforcement provisions in the deal. Neal praised Lighthizer on Tuesday, saying he was “entirely honorable with the way that he dealt with us.”
Neal said the negotiations with the administration often got heated, joking that he believes he and Lighthizer set a world record for how many times they hung up the phone on each other.
The new version of the deal between the US, Mexico and Canada will get rid of controversial protections for biologic drugs entirely, a decision certain to receive criticism from a number of congressional Republicans.
Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means committee, told CNN on Tuesday that he “strongly urged” the administration to keep the 10-year patent protection provision intact.
“Clearly that was a compromise Ambassador Lighthizer reached with Democrats. I think removing it is a better option than weakening those years further,” said Brady. “At the end of the day, US protections are preserved. That’s important.”
The United States already has patent protections for biologic drugs in place domestically, but Democrats opposed enshrining the protections in the agreement because they want Congress to be able to legislate on drug pricing issues without being bound by the trade deal.
Republicans have long supported including exclusivity provisions for pharmaceutical companies in trade deals. But most GOP lawmakers remain unlikely to side against Trump on passage of the new trade deal, even though the agreement is far from the free trade orthodoxy the party had embraced prior to the President’s election.
The new version of US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement would also involve monitoring provisions, including the establishment of an interagency committee to monitor Mexican labor reform efforts and a set of benchmarks for Mexico to meet in implementing the reforms.
“This no longer NAFTA lite,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez, who was involved in the talks. “This is a new trade agreement that the working group and the Democrats have achieved in consultation, of course, with our partners.”
The announcement came after AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka endorsed the deal in a statement on Monday. Democrats had sought approval from organized labor, a key constituency for many in the caucus, before moving ahead.
“This is long overdue but very welcome news,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley said in a statement. “I’m glad a deal has finally been reached. I look forward to reviewing the specific language soon and expect committee members will be briefed in person by USTR this week.”
Lighthizer briefed Finance committee members over the phone on Tuesday morning.
Lighthizer will participate in a signing event alongside Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lópes Obrador and Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in Mexico City on Tuesday afternoon.