Background

The importance of NAFTA was a key theme in Feb. 7 meetings between congressional trade policymakers and White House officials. President Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement unless it can be sufficiently updated to benefit the U.S.

In one meeting, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer met with members of the House Ways and Means Committee. Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Doug Reichert, R-Wash., said afterward that both sides agree on the need to modernize NAFTA and other trade agreements “to make sure Americans get the best deal possible.” However, they also stressed the importance of retaining “strong enforcement commitments with effective dispute settlement,” including investor-state dispute settlement provisions, which the Trump administration has proposed to make optional.

The two leaders indicated divergences with the White House on other issues as well. Brady emphasized the need to “stay at the table,” a possible reference to the administration’s withdrawal threat, and Reichert asserted that U.S. trade agreements “have greatly benefited communities across the country,” a point often disputed by Trump. Reichert also highlighted the importance of creating “certainty and confidence in the relationship,” which observers say would be lessened by an administration proposal to automatically terminate NAFTA every five years unless action is specifically taken to continue it.

Separately, Senate Finance Committee Republicans met with Lighthizer, Trump, and others at the White House. NAFTA was a key topic in these discussions as well, and according Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a key argument was that “some misstep on NAFTA” could jeopardize “all the good economic news that’s been coming out as a result of the regulatory rollback and the tax bill.” Senators also registered opposition to the automatic sunset provision, which Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., called “a very bad idea,” and other controversial proposals.

Press reports indicate that at both meetings Lighthizer said further progress on renegotiating NAFTA and the U.S.-Korea FTA, as well as pursuing trade agreements with other countries, would be aided by Senate confirmation of several assistant USTR positions. Those confirmations have been delayed by holds placed by various senators that now appear to have been lifted.

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