WASHINGTON -Environmental concerns did not deter the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee from recommending that the Senate pass the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
The committee voted 16-4 in support of the USMCA, with mostly Republican senators touting improved trade and opportunities for the agriculture industry. The USMCA, often branded as an update or replacement to the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed the House in December 385-41.
Opposition came from a small cohort of Democrats led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.Though Whitehouse said the bill’s environmental protections were bolstered since its initial draft, he said the provisions remained an insufficient response to climate change.
“We’re now at a point where I don’t believe improvement is the measure,” Whitehouse said. “You’re either reaching a measure that will protect us or you are not.”
The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who voted in favor of the measure, conceded the USMCA did not constitute a solution to the climate crisis nor the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental protections. However, he said, the bill offered tools for more stringent enforcement of existing environmental regulations and included stricter provisions against ocean pollution and overfishing.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., called the inclusion of environmental provisions in the USMCA “revolutionary” and said it laid a template for their inclusion in future trade agreements.
But Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., issued a protracted critique of the USMCA and the committee’s handling of the bill after voting in favor of it because he said it helped labor.
Merkley said the committee should have heard from experts and called out committee chair Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., for failing to hold a comprehensive hearing or even a conversation among committee members.
“It violates the responsibility of you, Mr. Chairman, to make sure this committee has the chance to consider important environmental issues before voting on an environmental piece of legislation that has implications perhaps for a generation,” Merkley said.
Merkley cited widespread opposition to the bill by environmental groups and said the committee should have called those groups to testify. A letter sent to Congress in December and signed by Greenpeace and the National Resources DefenseCouncilurged members to vote against the USMCA.
Barrasso and fellow Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaskacitedthe opportunities the bill would bring to their state’s agricultural sectors. Barrasso and Sullivan also praised provisions combating ocean pollution.
The Senate Finance Committee issued a favorable report on the bill last week. The USMCA will be considered by five other committees, including Commerce, Science and Transportation, before a full Senate vote.