Progress on USMCA ratification possible in 'weeks': US official

Lighthizer told lawmakers he needed a Democrat to say, 'yes, this is enough' (AFP Photo/NICHOLAS KAMM)

Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump's efforts to push a new North American trade pact through Congress are making progress, a top US trade official said Tuesday.

However, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told lawmakers Democrats who control the House of Representatives have so far not said precisely what will satisfy them.

As he prepares to seek reelection next year, Trump is hoping to win ratification of a new trade agreement which the United States, Canada and Mexico negotiated last year.

But the text faces an uphill battle in the US legislature, where Democrats have shown skepticism over Mexico's willingness to enforce new labor protections.

"I know generally what people want and I know what we can do. I just need to get somebody I can sit down there on the other side and say yes, this is enough," Lighthizer said Tuesday in Senate testimony.

"I think we're making progress on that and my hope is that, over the course of the next couple of weeks, we can make substantial progress."

Democrats, who hold the key to the new agreement's future, have said publicly they are "on a path to yes" but reacted harshly to Trump's decision last month to jumpstart the congressional ratification process before an agreement had be reached.

Trump this month also withdrew a threat to impose new tariffs on Mexican imports to coerce Mexican authorities into stemming the flow of migrants toward the southwestern US border.

- 'Treated worse than before' -

Mexico this year also enacted sweeping changes to its labor laws as part of the agreement but Congress has yet to draft implementing legislation that would ratify the agreement and could contain provisions to help hold Mexico to its commitments.

"We have what is now an enforceable agreement," Lighthizer said. "I expect to work with members of the committee to make it even more enforceable."

Republican lawmakers on Tuesday reiterated criticism of Trump's aggressive trade policy, with Senator Chuck Grassley, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, accusing the president of using tariffs "in every instance."

Ron Wyden of Oregon, the panel's top Democrat, said indebted US students faced the prospect of borrowing more to cover higher prices for school supplies to pay for Trump's tariffs.

"I would say to those college students if China steals your intellectual property you're not going to have jobs in the future and much worse your children are not going to have jobs in the future," said Lighthizer.

Trump said Tuesday he expects to meet with his Chinese counterpart at the Group of 20 summit in Japan next week, hopefully to revive talks to resolve the impasse that collapsed last month.

Lighthizer also said negotiations with Japan were aimed at addressing disadvantages for US farm exporters now that Japan had signed trade agreements with Europe and had entered the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which included agricultural nations Canada and Australia.

Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP in 2017 on his first full day in office.

"We're in a position thus where we're treated worse than we were before relative to our strongest competition and that's an unacceptable situation from a United States point of view and we are in negotiations and I think we're making headway," Lighthizer said.