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House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks during a weekly press conference on Capitol Hill on January 11, 2018, in Washington, DC Zach Gibson/GettyImages

Paul Ryan says NAFTA deal must be done by May 17

If not, the trade deal won't be voted upon during this Congress.

by Eric Martin, Josh Wingrove and Jenny Leonard 

Paul Ryan says he needs notice of a NAFTA deal by May 17 if the current Congress is going to be able to vote on it, suggesting talks are pushing up against the constraints of American trade law. 

The House Speaker, in remarks delivered Wednesday in Washington, said U.S. Trade Promotion Authority regulations mean next week is a deadline for the Trump administration if it wants to pass a new North American Free Trade Agreement before a new Congress is sworn in. 

“As the author of TPA, I can tell you, we have to have the paper -- not just an agreement, we have to have the paper -- from USTR by May 17 for us to vote on it this year, in December, in the lame duck,” he said at an event hosted by the Ripon Society, a Republican policy group, according to video posted online Thursday. 

“So it is May 9th,” he said, checking his watch, shrugging his shoulders and saying with a chuckle that he would let others draw conclusions about the feasibility of meeting that deadline. 

Ryan was referring to the next step of NAFTA talks, according to spokeswoman Ashlee Strong. If a deal is reached, the Trump administration would send a letter to Congress giving 90 days notice of its intent to sign a deal and text of a deal must be published 30 days after that. “This is not a statutory deadline, but a timeline and calendar deadline,” Strong said by email.

Unresolved Issues 

The comments put the firmest deadline yet on NAFTA talks -- but it may not actually be that firm. Many trade observers have said U.S. deadlines are murky, and that a deal reached later in May or even in June could theoretically get passed.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has indicated he needs a deal this month but hasn’t publicly identified a particular day. Congressional staff on committees responsible for trade, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday they weren’t aware of a hard deadline for the administration to give Congress text of the agreement. 

Ryan highlighted unresolved issues, such as investor-state dispute panels that he favors but Lighthizer wants to water down, and agriculture, a key sector in the Speaker’s home state of Wisconsin. He appeared to be skeptical a deal could be completed in time. 

“I don’t want to make news, but um, we’ll see if they can get this done by May 17 and get us the paper to Congress, which then we could have this vote in December. If they can’t, then we won’t.” He added: “May 17th, you’ll find out.”

Political Calculus

The existing NAFTA remains on the books unless a country withdraws, which would require six months notice. No country has given that notice, though President Donald Trump has threatened to do so. Lighthizer has said the political calculus for passing a new NAFTA would change if it had to be voted on by the next Congress. 

Ryan met Thursday with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in Washington, and the two discussed U.S. trade law and the impending timelines. A NAFTA deal “will take as long as it takes,” she said. Freeland was twice asked Thursday by reporters whether Ryan mentioned a deadline of next week, and didn’t specifically answer.

“I think the rules are set out quite clearly in the TPA legislation, and it was certainly useful for me to hear directly from some of the people who actually wrote it how they see that process playing out,” she said. When pressed, Freeland added: “We discussed how the TPA legislation could come into play.”

--With assistance from Anna Edgerton.

To contact the reporters on this story: Eric Martin in Mexico City at emartin21@bloomberg.net; Josh Wingrove in Ottawa at jwingrove4@bloomberg.net; Jenny Leonard in Washington at jleonard67@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah McGregor at smcgregor5@bloomberg.net

Stephen Wicary, Robert Jameson

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P

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