The drop in support for impeachment in the polls is increasing pressure on Democrats to strike a deal on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
House Democrats have been eager to prove that impeachment is not getting in the way of legislative progress, a point Republicans have repeatedly pressed.
For months, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has insisted that House Democrats were working to get consensus on President Trump’s signature trade deal, which would update the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
She has also been adamant that impeachment would not affect USMCA talks, or vice versa, and that the tracks are totally separate.
“They have nothing to do with each other,” she said as the impeachment process kicked off.
But with the presidential election less than a year away, the political ramifications of the impeachment process are at the front of Democrats’ minds. Progress on a popular bipartisan issue could help assuage moderate voters.
“Polling always affects the politics,” said Democratic strategist Tim Lim, a partner at NEWCO Strategies.
Polling on impeachment has found that a majority of respondents support the process, but support has dropped from key groups of independents as public hearings got underway. An Emerson poll in November found 43 percent of voters overall supporting impeachment compared with 45 percent opposed. That represented a 6-point swing from the pollster’s survey in October.
If that trend continues as the inquiry heads to the House Judiciary Committee this week, Democrats could become more mindful of notching a major bipartisan accomplishment.
Republicans have repeatedly accused Democrats of playing politics with the USMCA, especially in the face of impeachment.
“House Democrats are continuing their three-year-long quest to impeach the president and continuing to obstruct urgent bipartisan legislation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) charged Tuesday, specifically mentioning the trade deal.
Pelosi, he said, “keeps offering the same empty rhetoric that’s no different than what she was saying 10 months ago.”
Trump has also bashed Pelosi on impeachment, calling her “grossly incompetent” and accusing her of using it as a carrot for skeptical, centrist Democrats to whip votes on impeachment.
“She’s using USMCA to get the impeachment vote,” Trump said after the public hearings began.
Despite the hullabaloo, Democrats say progress has continued apace.
Ahead of Thanksgiving, they said they had finalized most of the issues in talks with the administration.
“We are within range of a substantially improved agreement for America’s workers. Now, we need to see our progress in writing from the Trade Representative for final review,” Pelosi said at the time.
On Saturday, Mexico’s top negotiator Jesús Seade said a deal could wrap up by the end of this week.
“If the amendments suggested are fine, are acceptable, are improvements, then there’s no reason why we should not be shaking hands next week,” he said.
After meeting with Trump on Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “very, very hopeful that we’re going to have good news soon.”
But even as final details on enforcement, labor, environment and pharmaceuticals come together, Democrats must make the political decision of whether, how and when to finalize the deal.
Lim says there’s a simmering debate within the party over whether it makes political sense to hand Trump a victory going into 2020, especially one that will align so well with his “promises made, promises kept” reelection slogan.
“There’s a real source of strife and tension coming from it, which is ‘do Democrats want to give Trump a major legislative victory going into an election cycle,’ or ‘do we do the same thing Republicans did to President Obama,’ ” Lim said.
Moving ahead on the deal could also create a high-profile, public fracture in the primary field of Democrats running for president, sowing disunity ahead of the election.
In the 2016 race, for example, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came out strong against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal negotiated by then-President Obama. Hillary Clinton, who had worked on the deal as secretary of State and had once called it the “gold standard” of trade deals, ended up distancing herself from the pact.
Trump, who campaigned on toughening up trade deals, scrapped it altogether when he took office.
Centrist Democrats who won Trump districts, helping their party take back the House in 2018, want to make sure they can deliver to their constituents. Many believe that if a deal isn’t wrapped up in the coming weeks, election-year politics will eliminate the possibility.
“We know that members of Congress are back in town with a lot on their plate, but we are at the point where the rubber meets the road on USMCA,” said former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), speaking in association with trade advocacy group Farmers for Free Trade.
“I know what these end-of-year sessions are like. Everything is a time crunch. But I also know that it’s now over a year since the agreement was signed and farmers want movement. If congressional leadership makes this a priority it can be accomplished quickly,” she added.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who leads the Senate committee responsible for trade, sent a more urgent warning.
“If a deal cannot be reached by the end of this week, I do not see how the USMCA can be ratified in the year we’re in,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday.