Trade Cases

Senate Members Fear NAFTA Withdrawal

Written by Sandy Williams

Withdrawal from NAFTA is looking more likely, said Democratic and Republican senators who met separately with President Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer last week.

Six Republicans who attended a meeting at the White House on Tuesday said it is likely the president will trigger the withdrawal process after the sixth round of talks in January and try to use the six-month termination period as leverage to negotiate a new deal.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told Inside U.S. Trade that lawmakers expressed strong opinions at the meeting and voiced their opposition to a withdrawal.

Agriculture was at the forefront of concerns by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA). “We’re still in discussions, so I just keep emphasizing to the president the importance of trade as it applies to agriculture,” said Ernst.” I am pleased the president was willing to sit down and visit with us, but we remain committed to strong agricultural trade.”

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee had their turn on Wednesday, meeting with Lighthizer at the request of Ron Wyden (D-OR). The meeting was described as “contentious” by a Democratic aide.

Lighthizer gave no reassurance to Senate members that the U.S. would continue the NAFTA agreement, reported Inside U.S. Trade, who talked with members following the meeting.

“He said it’s not his decision,’” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD). “He says ‘I can only tell you what I can do. And I will certainly do everything I can do to work with you on all decisions that are made, but I work for the president.’”

“He gave us no comfort level at all,” Cardin added.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said Lighthizer “basically acknowledged agriculture is in big trouble.” The “do no harm” approach touted by the administration will be impossible if the U.S. withdraws from NAFTA, she said.

“Agriculture is going to get hurt terribly. It’s the foundation of my state’s economy,” said McCaskill. “I think [Lighthizer] understands it, but I think they’re willing to [withdraw]. I hope the people in rural Missouri figure it out that this administration’s trade policy potentially could gut them.”

The Democratic aide told Inside U.S. Trade that senators expressed concern regarding the proposed sunset clause and changes to the dispute mechanism. 

Lighthizer expressed frustration that Mexico and Canada have not capitulated to U.S. demands. The senators were frustrated, said the aide, that the USTR didn’t seem to have a strategy to deal with the stalled talks and were concerned about “how China might benefit from a NAFTA collapse.”

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) told Inside U.S. Trade that Lighthizer also blamed Democrats for delaying confirmation of trade nominees. 

“I didn’t think it was productive to get into a back-and-forth with him about that,” said Casey.

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