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Senate passage of USMCA faces delay, even with committee passage

Full Senate vote put off to next week at the earliest, but final vote could be delayed further by articles of impeachment from the House.

By Erik Wasson

A full Senate vote on President Donald Trump’s rewritten NAFTA trade agreement will be put off until next week at the earliest, after the deal was referred to multiple committees for review, according to a GOP aide.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 25-3 on Tuesday to advance the legislation to implement the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal. However, the accord was also referred to six other panels that could take weeks to consider it, even though the committees can’t change the content of the deal.

The committees on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Environment and Public Works; Appropriations; Foreign Relations; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; and Budget haven’t announced whether they will take time to examine it.

The final vote could be delayed further if the House sends the Senate two articles of impeachment it adopted against Trump in December. So far, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has held up the notice, which would require the Senate trial to begin immediately, saying she’s seen no sign that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will conduct a “fair” trial.

Before Pelosi’s delay in transmitting the articles, McConnell had said a Senate vote on the USMCA trade deal would have to wait until after the impeachment trial.

During the Senate Finance Committee’s Tuesday hearing, Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, criticized the deal for creating new rules that will increase the cost of purchasing cars and said the 16-year sunset date will create economic uncertainty in the future.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said he planned to vote against it because it fails to address climate change. Toomey and Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana also voted against the measure.

The agreement passed the House in December on a bipartisan 385-41 vote after House Democrats negotiated changes to strengthen the deal’s labor, environment, drug patent and enforcement provisions.

Senate Vote

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the Finance chairman, told reporters before the hearing that he only learned Monday of the referral to other panels and that he thinks it is “going to be a problem.”

“But the real problem is the extent that we don’t know when we are going to get the articles of impeachment. When those articles enter into the Senate chamber that has priority over everything else,” he said. “If I wanted to speculate, and if they don’t come over for another week or 10 days, we can get this done. If the articles of impeachment come over it could be two, three, four weeks before we can get this done.”

Because of the referrals and related procedures, a Senate vote this week or early next week is not possible, according to a Senate GOP aide, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal deliberations. Passage at the end of next week remains possible, though, the aide said.

Approving the NAFTA overhaul would give Trump a powerful win heading into an election year and could ease some of the uncertainty weighing on the U.S. economy, strengthening Trump’s message of growth and prosperity for his 2020 campaign. It also allows Democrats from narrowly divided or Republican-leaning districts to show voters they’re working on issues other than impeachment.

The USMCA is projected to have a small effect on the overall U.S. economy, adding just 0.35% to GDP after six years, according to an official U.S. estimate.

--With assistance from Jenny Leonard.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Erik Wasson in Washington at ewasson@bloomberg.net
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net
Laurie Asséo, Anna Edgerton
© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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