WASHINGTON — House Democrats say they are on the cusp of finalizing a new North American trade agreement.
But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday that they had better move quickly if they want to see that U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement ratified in 2019.
“The window of opportunity is running out on USMCA for this year,” Grassley said Wednesday during his weekly conference call with reporters. “The Iowa caucuses are in sight, which will kick off the presidential season.”
Grassley is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade agreements such as USMCA.
Backers of the deal, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, worry that an anticipated Senate impeachment trial next year and the intensity of a presidential campaign season will limit 2020 legislative activity.
So they want it ratified before Congress heads home for Christmas — and Grassley said the number of days left on the calendar is misleading, given the many procedural steps that must yet happen for the deal’s ratification.
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Democrats have been negotiating for some time with the White House over the deal’s labor and enforcement provisions, saying they are looking out for American workers.
And they insisted this week that they are almost to the finish line — statements Grassley acknowledged.
“But I’m worried that if a deal can’t be reached by the end of the week, USMCA will not be ratified by this year,” Grassley said. “That means that we enter 2020 with a great deal of uncertainty for farmers.”
The new agreement represents a potential boost for various sectors of the economy, including agricultural producers who rely heavily on international markets to sell their crops.
They have been hammered this year by both inclement weather and ongoing trade disputes. President Donald Trump’s tariff battles with China, in particular, have taken a toll on Midwestern grain farmers.
Ratifying the USMCA would hardly wipe out all those losses, but it could represent some positive news.
Senate Republicans took to the Senate floor Wednesday to tout the agreement and called on House Democrats to hold a vote.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said that Canada and Mexico receive 44% of Nebraska’s total exports and that Nebraska and rural America overall were “dealt a tough hand” in 2019.
“However, every time that I meet with Nebraska’s farm families, ranchers, ag producers and manufacturers, they reassure me they can endure these challenges,” Fischer said. “They will sacrifice short-term anxiety for long-term certainty and predictability. But they need to know there’s going to be a light at the end of this tunnel.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, noted that the deal has been pending for more than a year, representing an entire cycle of planting and harvesting for those in the fields, and she urged the House to vote.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said there are many Nebraska families on the edge of bankruptcy, looking for a desperately needed win.
Not approving the pact, he said, would send a message that the United States may or may not be open for business, depending on short-term political posturing.
“That’s the message they’re sending now, and that’s a message that might be cemented if this calendar year ends without passing USMCA,” Sasse said. “Try running a convenience store like that and you’d be out of business in a month.”