President Trump has said that an impeachment inquiry would block all prospects for cooperating with Democrats on legislation, but the furor seems to have had little effect so far on the prospects for his signature trade deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
It’s not certain the deal meant to replace the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will get through Congress, but both sides are sounding positive notes even as they trade barbs over impeachment.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday said the trade deal’s path forward was independent of impeachment.
“They have nothing to do with each other,” she said at her weekly press conference, adding that she hoped Trump would find a way to work with Democrats despite the impeachment fight.
“The president has said he wants this U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement to go forward, and we are awaiting the language on enforceability. Does it mean he can’t do that? That’s really up to him,” she said.
At first blush, Pelosi would seem to have no incentive to reach a deal that could help Trump cement a major campaign promise and take credit for overturning the much-maligned NAFTA.
But Democratic strategists say Pelosi is being strategic, showing that Democrats can “walk and chew gum” at the same time on impeachment while also pushing a Democratic campaign message.
“I think this is almost a way for Pelosi to say we’re doing the business of the people,” says Jonathan Tasini, a Democratic strategist and labor expert.
Trump has sought to counter that message, portraying impeachment as a waste of time by Democrats consumed with forcing him from office.
“Nancy Pelosi just said that she is interested in lowering prescription drug prices & working on the desperately needed USMCA,” he tweeted following Pelosi’s press conference on Wednesday. “She is incapable of working on either. It is just camouflage for trying to win an election through impeachment. The Do Nothing Democrats are stuck in mud!”
Strategists say Pelosi wants to both show Democrats can govern and showcase Democratic priorities on trade with the USMCA.
“There is an opportunity here to realize a number of long-term progressive priorities. Progressives have been saying since NAFTA passed in the 90s that it needs to be replaced,” said Neil Sroka, the communications director for Democracy for America, a progressive PAC.
“I think there’s an opportunity for Democrats to make it clear that the only way it was able to pass was because Democrats made it better,” he added.
Democrats have been steadfast in pushing for changes to the deal. On Friday, they sent their latest legislative offer to the White House, demanding stronger enforcement for labor and environmental standards, as well as changes to pharmaceutical policy.
Sroka and other Democratic strategists are skeptical that the White House will accept the Democratic demands, despite the strong working relationship they’ve developed with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
“I’m skeptical that we will get to an agreement given the fact that there are still a great deal of concern over how the deal was rigged in favor of Big Pharma with high drug prices,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has been pushing for Pelosi to move ahead with the deal as-is, seemed to brush off the idea that Republicans would accept Democratic proposals.
“They have been marching through their whole array of left-wing proposals. Obviously those are not going anywhere in this current divided government,” he said Monday on CNBC when asked about potential cooperation on legislation.
Still, he said the trade deal should be a top priority.
“I know the House has been on this impeachment addiction since the day the president was sworn in, but I hope they can turn their attention to something else. USMCA ought to be right at the top of the list, it is good for the American people,” he said.
Pelosi faces risks with her strategy as well.
If the White House were to accept a Democratic proposal and gain the support of skeptical labor groups such as the AFL-CIO, Pelosi could hand Trump a major win ahead of his 2020 reelection campaign.
With USMCA in hand, he could tout his aggressive approach to trade deals as effective, and show he’d fulfilled a campaign promise.
“To the extent that the administration accepts any of these, there’s a risk that the president can bask in the success of something they didn’t put forward, but ultimately accepted,” said Andy Green, managing director of economic policy at the Center For American Progress.
“You have to win the messaging war that you demanded the changes that were made,” he added.
Tasini believes that approach could boost Democrats in 2020.
“If the AFL-CIO puts its stamp of approval on this renegotiated deal, that would be good for the Democratic Party, because they were the main force opposing the bad labor provisions,” he said.
“If I was a Democratic leader or labor leader, I would go into Michigan or Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and say ‘We held the line, this deal is better because of us, not because of Donald Trump.’ ”