DURYEA, Pa. — Vice President Mike Pence, a longtime free trader, has been pushing President Donald Trump’s new North American trade pact by traveling around the country slamming Democrats for being slow to hold a vote on the deal.
“The USMCA is languishing in the House of Representatives,” he said last month to a crowd of more than 200 workers at a local glass manufacturer here. “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats in Congress have refused to bring the USMCA to the floor.”
But Pence’s pressure campaign, including appearances in 18 states and more than a dozen Democratic districts that voted for Trump, isn’t doing much to convince the targeted Democrats that they should move faster as they work with Trump’s top trade official to iron out the fine print on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Several Democratic lawmakers and aides told POLITICO that Pence’s roadshow instead is making them question whether the Trump administration is negotiating in good faith — or simply wants to bash Democrats going into 2020.
“I think it’s very dumb for them to politicize USMCA when everyone is trying to get this done in an honest, bipartisan fashion,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) — whom Pence has called out by name on his national tour. “They’re not fooling anyone.”
The partisan finger-pointing from Pence comes as Pelosi continues to insist her caucus is willing to give Trump a rare policy win with the NAFTA replacement, even as the House moves forward with its impeachment investigation of the president. She told Bloomberg News on Friday that Democrats are close to finalizing an agreement on the language with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Though the Trump administration and Republicans have been pressing for a vote on the deal by Thanksgiving, Pelosi declined to rule out that a vote could slip to next year.
Lighthizer has been on Capitol Hill more than a dozen times since June to work with a group of Democrats tapped by Pelosi to strike a deal that would allay Democrats’ concerns about the pact’s enforcement, labor, environmental and prescription drug provisions.
Several Democratic aides were quick to note that Lighthizer has been alone in doing all the heavy-lifting on Capitol Hill. Trump’s trade chief has been in dozens of meetings with Democrats across the political spectrum this year — and Democrats praised him for his availability and willingness to talk through their concerns.
Several aides to Democratic lawmakers said they weren’t aware of Pence reaching out to any House Democrats to court them on USMCA. And one aide said that they were unaware of Pence speaking to Pelosi recently, despite his repeated criticism of her handling of the USMCA.
Pence is “engaging in a political exercise while USTR is telling us they’re working in good faith. For a lot of people who do want to get to yes, it’s a frustrating place for him to be traveling to districts saying that Democrats are holding it up,” an aide said.
Pence’s office pushed back on Democrats’ criticism, saying they have failed to pass the trade deal that was signed over a year ago and instead have chosen to “invest all of their energy into overturning the will of the American people with endless investigations.”
“The Democrats have failed to fulfill any of their campaign promises since taking the majority,” Katie Waldman, a spokesperson for Pence, said in a statement to POLITICO. “The only thing that is unfair is that since the day the President was elected the Democrats have been trying to impeach at every turn.”
Even if Democrats and Lighthizer strike a deal, that won’t clear an immediate path for a vote. Lighthizer would still have to go back to the Mexican and Canadian governments to get their approval on any changes made to the original agreement. Mexico has already said it’s possible that discussion could be quick — or it could be drawn out if the changes are bad for the country.
The Trump administration will then have to send Congress a formal implementing bill, which is what lawmakers would ultimately vote on. It remains unclear whether all that can come together in the less than 20 legislative days left in this year.
Rep. Haley Stevens, a freshman Democrat from Michigan, wants to see a replacement deal for NAFTA ratified soon, but she criticized the Trump administration for blaming Democrats when Congress still does not have any kind of implementing bill to consider yet. Stevens, who has previously urged Pelosi to ensure a deal is struck and passed this year, noted that lawmakers “still don’t have the materials and it’s up to the administration to produce it.”
“I’m kind of part of the coalition of the willing, and [the Trump administration] is almost creating a false scenario when we don’t even have written legislation and we’ve gone really far,” Stevens said.