SAN ANTONIO – The Senate’s No. 2 Republican is making it clear: No changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement go anywhere without Congress’ say.
As trade representatives from the United States, Canada and Mexico engage in their fifth round of discussions on the trilateral trade agreement Monday, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who chairs the Senate’s subcommittee that deals with international trade, launched his most vocal effort yet to push White House negotiators toward modernizing, not discarding, the agreement.
Cornyn’s calls come as White House trade negotiators once again asserted plans to abandon the deal altogether if the three countries can’t reach a deal to modernize the agreement for the internet era.
“We are confident a new NAFTA will create new opportunities for Texas,” said United States Trade Representative General Counsel Stephen Vaughn at a Texas forum Cornyn hosted Monday.
“All of us at USTR are both aware of and have concern for those Americans who benefited from NAFTA 1.0,” Vaughn said.
“At the same time,” he added, “I would like to emphasize that (USTR) Ambassador (Robert) Lighthizer agrees strongly with the president’s view that the current version of NAFTA is a bad deal for America.”
Thanks to the trade promotion authority a pro-trade Republican-controlled Congress passed during the Obama administration, the White House has sole control of the actual negotiation process. President Donald Trump campaigned on renegotiating NAFTA, and threatened to leave the agreement altogether if the three countries can’t reach an agreement on a renegotiated deal.
But changes to the agreement require the approval of Congress, whose Senate votes Cornyn, the GOP whip, is responsible for rounding up.
Since January, Cornyn’s office says he’s met four times in person with Lighthizer. He’s also met to discuss NAFTA with two other Cabinet members – Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross – and Vice President Mike Pence.
“It’s important that we stay in close contact with the negotiators so that if they negotiate something it actually has a chance of being passed by Congress,” Cornyn said.
Without criticizing the ongoing talks, Cornyn used Monday’s congressional field hearing at the Marriott Plaza San Antonio, where NAFTA was born 25 years ago, to give state’s biggest business interests the ear of one of the top White House negotiators on the issue.
Leaders from the state’s manufacturing, automobile, farm and energy lobbies used Monday’s hearing to describe growth in their industries as a direct result of NAFTA’s implementation. They also threatened drastic job losses and trade impediments if NAFTA was abandoned.
Industry leaders suggested a provision that would require a similar reauthorization every five years could create instability in the markets. Farmers, for instance, could not plan ahead for supplies.
These groups face stiff opposition from traditionally left-leaning labor and environmental groups who align more closely with Trump on NAFTA. They would also like to see the agreement renegotiated, but with additional environmental and labor standards. They would favor leaving the deal altogether if those are not achieved.
The left-leaning trade watch group Public Citizen has criticized business groups for using their power and influence to rig the negotiations to their own benefit.
“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable, Coalition of Service Industries, PhRMA and other business lobbies have spent decades and hundreds of millions to insert protections and policies unrelated to trade into U.S. ‘trade’ agreements,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “They may prioritize defending the protections they won.”
A handful of protesters outside Monday’s event echoed that sentiment, carrying signs that said “people over profits.”
The politics of NAFTA skew party lines in Texas, where trade with Mexico accounts for nearly 40 percent of the state’s exports and 35 percent of imports, according to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Democrats such as El Paso Rep. Beto O’Rourke and San Antonio Rep. Henry Cuellar have been outspoken advocates for protecting NAFTA, putting them at odds with organized labor and some of their party leaders on the issue.
Conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, earlier this month joined the establishment-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce in calling to protect and modernize NAFTA, drawing criticism from the far-right magazine The New American, which wants the U.S. to pull out of the agreement.
An alliance of 4,000 Texas businesses, called the Texas-Mexico Trade Coalition, formed in June specifically to protect the state’s interests with NAFTA. It has two lobbyists in Washington to work on the issue.
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