The day after voting to impeach President Donald Trump, the House approved his top 2019 legislative priority by advancing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade accord.
The bill to replace the current North American Free Trade Agreement passed the House on a 385-41 vote, with strong bipartisan support less than 24 hours after Democrats and Republicans accused each other of shredding the Constitution in the impeachment process.
The Republican-led Senate won’t take up the trade agreement until next year, after finishing the impeachment trial that is likely to end with Trump’s acquittal. The USMCA legislation can’t be amended, and it will need just a simple majority to pass the Senate, according to fast-track trade powers Congress gave the president in 2015.
Democrats only agreed to support the trade agreement after negotiating substantial changes, especially regarding enforcement provisions. Politically, passing USMCA before leaving for the holiday recess gives Democrats from narrowly divided or Republican-leaning districts something to tout other than impeachment, which is not popular with some of their voters.
Yet approving the NAFTA overhaul also gives Trump a powerful win heading into an election year and a convenient pivot from the impeachment process. Even before the Senate takes up the deal, House passage will ease some of the uncertainty that was weighing on the U.S. economy, strengthening Trump’s message of growth and prosperity for his re-election campaign.
“In sharp contrast to yesterday, today is the first time this chamber can finally rally around an overwhelming, bipartisan legislative win since the start of this Congress,” Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said on the House floor.
Pelosi said Thursday before the vote that she doesn’t care about the “collateral benefit” for Trump.
“We had an opportunity to do something very important for the American people, for America’s workers, and we could not let him stand in the way of that because he will go out and take credit,” Pelosi said. “This isn’t about him. It’s about American workers. It’s about being good neighbors in our hemisphere.”
Trump, along with leaders of Canada, Mexico signed the initial version of the USMCA in November 2018, but Democrats insisted on changes to labor, environment, enforcement and drug patent protection provisions before putting the deal to a vote. The final adjustments won the support of some key labor unions, and Pelosi praised the updated version as a model for future trade deals.
The agreement that House Democrats worked out with the Trump administration will enforce worker protections, especially in Mexico, by creating new fast-track panels to investigate labor violations, which can be punished with factory-specific tariffs or import bans. In addition to support from the AFL-CIO labor federation, the provision won over trade skeptics like Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat and free-trade skeptic.
Democratic Representative Mike Thompson of California, who played a key role in renegotiating the agreement, said Democrats are largely backing it because most of their demands are met.
“It’s much improved over the original NAFTA and much improved over the plan the president submitted to Congress” he said. “ We’ve got a package of protections for labor the environment and prescription drugs and it’s enforceable.”
Mexico this week objected to a provision in the bill funding five labor attaches in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to monitor workers’ rights. The Mexican government dropped their objection Monday after the Trump administration clarified that these attaches would not be carrying out factory workplace inspections.
The bill provides US$843 million of U.S. taxpayer money to implement the accord, including funds to help Mexico examine union contracts as part of its new labor law.
The USMCA is projected to have a small effect on the overall U.S. economy, adding just 0.35 per cent to GDP after six years according to an official U.S. estimate. Still, the deal comes as a relief, especially for agriculture and manufacturing production chains in North America that have been on edge since Trump threatened to pull out of NAFTA altogether.