WASHINGTON — The last three Senate committees considering the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement approved it Wednesday, paving the way for a Senate vote on the Trump administration’s trade pact to replace NAFTA.
Six Senate committees had to sign off on the massive trade deal. The Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the Appropriations Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday morning all voted by wide margins to recommend that the Senate pass the legislation. Tuesday, the Budget and Environment and Public Works committees approved the deal. The Finance Committee was first to approve it on Jan. 7.
After the House of Representatives passed the measure by a 385-41 vote in December, Republicans in the Senate wanted to push the USMCA through before the impeachment trial begins, now scheduled for next week.
“The single most important step the United States could take in 2020 to further improve a growing economy is certainty in our trade agreements,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Despite pressures from more liberal members of the chamber, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., many Democrats supported the agreement after changes were made to strengthen labor and environmental protections.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who sits on both the Foreign Relations and Appropriations committees, argued that the bill is the best option on the table, and that these changes will raise the bar for future trade deals in Democratic administrations.
“I’m willing to take the improvements,” Coons said. “And, frankly, this is just part and parcel of a larger debate we’re having about whether we should make the perfect the enemy of the good.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, also pointed to the new labor and environmental regulations as key to getting Democrats to give the Trump administration a trade deal it wanted.
“I think this is significantly better than the current version on the labor and environmental side, in particularly the enforceability of the labor provisions,” Kaine said. “If it is better than the current version, I think we should vote for it. You know, that doesn’t stop someone from advocating for even more down the road.”
The Congressional Research Service said that the changes to labor issues included strengthening Mexican workers’ ability to unionize, which likely would cause wages to increase, and a formal committee to hold Mexico to its commitment. The pact also now would provide more protections for fish and another marine life, including stricter penalties to prevent overfishing.
Democrats and Republicans alike said the agreement represents an improvement over the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been in effect since 1994. USMCA includes a chapter on digital trade that was not included in NAFTA and gives dairy farmers more market access, an issue especially important to Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn.
Smith, who serves on the HELP Committee, said her home state’s economy is a microcosm of the national economy in that agriculture is the foundation, but manufacturing and importing also play big roles.
“There are so many ways that trade is integral to our state’s opportunity to grow and to thrive,” Smith said. “There are provisions in this bill that will help Minnesota dairy even the playing field with our friends and partners in Canada.”