U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers emerged Tuesday afternoon from a meeting at the White House optimistic about the chances of Congress passing a new trade deal to replace its agreements with Canada and Mexico.
“It sounds like they’re getting a lot of positive feedback from farmers, manufacturers, the financial sector regarding the agreement,” McMorris Rodgers said in an interview shortly after the meeting with President Donald Trump and his advisers. “They are also encouraged that there’s bipartisan support. They’re working very closely with Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and her office about the details and how to move this in the House.”
McMorris Rodgers is part of a team of Republican lawmakers that will try to sway several dozen Democratic votes in Congress to support Trump’s proposal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact among the three countries that was agreed to in principle by leaders in November following a flurry of negotiations.
Dubbed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the deal faces an uncertain future in the Democratic-controlled House amid concerns about its provisions pertaining to Mexican labor and a feature some lawmakers say could drive up the cost of a specific set of prescription drugs in the United States.
The meeting took place at the White House and included 22 Republican lawmakers in addition to McMorris Rodgers, according to a public pool report from Washington, D.C. Also present at the meeting were Jared Kushner, senior adviser to the president, and Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff.
The congresswoman said Trump has not ruled out terminating NAFTA if Congress cannot come to an agreement. The president routinely attacked the deal on the campaign trail in 2016, calling it “the single-worst trade deal ever approved in this country” in a presidential debate before the election. He has repeated that rhetoric and signaled he would leave the deal signed in 1994 after signing the new pact with Mexico and Canada, which is subject to congressional approval.
“The president would like to see Congress act,” McMorris Rodgers said. “If Congress does not act, he would consider termination. We did talk about that some, yes.”
Pelosi, who has sparred publicly with Trump on his request for funding for a border wall and the government shutdown that ensued, has indicated there will need to be concessions made to Democratic lawmakers before the House of Representatives would consider approval.
“The concerns center around workers’ rights, center around the environment, center around prescription drug prices,” Pelosi told reporters in February about the prospects of the treaty in the House.
McMorris Rodgers said Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, was present at the White House meeting on Tuesday after meeting with Democratic lawmakers earlier this month, according to reports from the Capitol. However, the drug pricing issue, which has reared its head in talks in Washington, D.C., this month, was not discussed during the strategic meeting, the congresswoman said.
Democratic lawmakers have raised alarms that a provision in the trade deal would shield the developers of drugs known as “biologics” from competitive use of their clinical data for a decade to create similar drugs in all three countries. The treaty would shorten the amount of time competitors must wait in the United States from 12 years to 10 years, but would lengthen the time in Mexico and Canada. Some lawmakers argue locking in that length of time would prevent future efforts to foster competition and make the drugs cheaper.
“That issue was not discussed,” McMorris Rodgers said. “I would have to check into it further.”
Trump also didn’t provide lawmakers with a specific answer on whether he’d remove tariffs he imposed on steel and aluminum, a condition that Canada has signaled in recent days would be required for them to ratify the treaty.
“It’s still under consideration,” McMorris Rodgers said of the future of the tariffs, which prompted price increases from Canada on its goods totaling $16.6 billion last summer. “He is encouraged to see the steel industry rebounding in America.”
The congresswoman said the big issue for Eastern Washington’s farmers is to get a North America trade agreement in place so that negotiators can move on to other deals with other countries, including Pacific nations that have historically been heavy trade partners for Palouse-grown wheat and other commodities.
Still, she said, there is a large economic incentive to get a deal through Congress and continue what she said has been economic momentum following Republican-driven tax reform in 2017.
“Apples, cherries, pears, they sell a lot into Mexico, so that’s going to be important,” McMorris Rodgers said. “There’s a lot of trade that takes place between the district I represent, Eastern Washington, and Mexico and Canada.”
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