Democrats working with the Trump administration to try to pass a new North American trade agreement say they are unbowed in their efforts to try to get a deal done this year, even as the House dives into an impeachment inquiry.
Just hours after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House would launch a formal impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump, the Democratic Caucus met Wednesday morning in part to get an update on the continuing U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement negotiations.
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who leads the nine-member working group negotiating changes to the deal with the Trump administration, said he had one message for the caucus at the meeting: “Proceed with optimism.”
“There is no reason, based on what happened yesterday, to think that there’s any deterrents that will hold us back,” Neal told reporters afterward.
House Democrats have been working closely for months with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to negotiate changes to Trump’s signature deal to replace NAFTA. They have outlined four main areas where they are seeking stronger language: labor, environment, access to medicines and enforcement.
Despite several weeks of near-constant engagement, a broad majority of the caucus remains unsatisfied with the current text of the deal in those and other areas.
And Democratic congressional aides say Pelosi will not call the deal up for a vote unless or until a substantial portion of the caucus is on board. She has held firm even as some more moderate Democrats and those in more trade-dependent districts have begun to indicate their support for the agreement. Business groups, farmers and Republicans alike are also growing more restless to see it in place to help benefit the U.S. economy.
The Trump administration, which is pushing to get the deal passed before the end of the year, sent counterproposals to Capitol Hill earlier this month in an attempt to meet Democrats’ top concerns. But the offer fell short and amounted to “an incomplete response,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, told POLITICO on Wednesday.
Still, the resounding outlook from Democrats on Wednesday was that the back-and-forth will continue as planned even as the impeachment inquiry continues. Although some members acknowledged the probe will affect everything that happens in the House, several others emphasized that the two issues can advance simultaneously.
“We can do more than one thing at a time,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), a member of the working group.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), another of the group’s members, went a step further, suggesting the inquiry could be beneficial for trade talks because it means the White House will be more willing to strike a compromise to get USMCA approved.
“Sometimes when there’s a crisis, there’s more opportunity,” Gomez told POLITICO.
For now, the plan remains for working group members to send another counterproposal back to the Trump administration by the end of the week. Members said the U.S. trade office also appears committed to continuing negotiations as usual.
“Not sure about the White House, but at least USTR’s office is interested in engaging still,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).
But the administration is posturing that legislative business will be hampered by the inquiry. The White House press secretary said Tuesday evening that by moving forward with impeachment, House Democrats have “destroyed any chances of legislative progress for the people of this country by continuing to focus all their energy on partisan political attacks.”
The statement made no direct reference to USMCA, however, which has long been the Trump administration’s top legislative priority.
Neal shrugged off the threat on Wednesday.
“Any threat to shut down the work of the legislative branch would be a violation of the separation of powers,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “I intend fully for Ways and Means responsibilities to proceed.”
Other Democrats, too, appeared unfazed by the White House’s threat.
“Figuring out what’s in [Trump’s] head and trying to act upon that is a futile exercise,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “We just have to keep our heads down and keep doing our work.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine