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Democrats Move Closer To Giving Trump A Big Legislative Victory On Trade


House Democrats are eager to show progress on something other than the impeachment inquiry. Just an hour after unveiling the formal charges against the president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a deal. She said Democrats had reached an agreement with the White House on an updated trade pact with Mexico and Canada.


NANCY PELOSI: This is a day we've all been working to and working for on the path to yes.

CORNISH: That yes on a new NAFTA marks a rare moment of bipartisanship in a deeply divided capital, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For the Trump administration, getting Mexico and Canada to sign a new trade deal was hard enough. Winning support from House Democrats may have been even tougher. House Speaker Pelosi says her party went along only after the new NAFTA was modified to include enforceable protections for workers and the environment.


PELOSI: There is no question, of course, that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA. It is infinitely better than what was initially proposed by the administration.

HORSLEY: Democrats also insisted on stripping out of the trade deal certain patent protections, which they called a giveaway to big pharmaceutical companies. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal says there were a lot of hard-fought negotiations with the White House.


RICHARD NEAL: I think we set a world record for hanging up on each other, myself and the trade rep. But at the same time, we also knew that this was an opportunity that we couldn't get away from us.

HORSLEY: Neal says the talks came to a head this past weekend. The Massachusetts lawmaker was watching the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady when he was interrupted by a phone call.


NEAL: All of a sudden, I looked at my phone. It said Pelosi for caller I.D. Long wisdom tells me, the hell with Brady. Take the call.

HORSLEY: As final details were ironed out, Neal was also in regular contact with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who checked in from a hunting trip. Trumka endorsed the agreement after a promise of factory inspections, if necessary, to verify compliance in Mexico. His union backing is an important green light for Congressman Neal and his fellow Democrats.


NEAL: This is more than a triumph for organized labor. It's a triumph for workers everywhere across America.

HORSLEY: It's also the first major trade agreement for the president, who spent much of the last three years disrupting international trade. At a signing ceremony in Mexico City this afternoon, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer hailed the agreement as a win for all three countries.


ROBERT LIGHTHIZER: And it's something that's going to make North America richer. It's going to make America richer, it's going to make Canada richer, and it's going to make Mexico richer.

HORSLEY: The new agreement, which Trump calls the USMCA, provides important updates for things like digital commerce that barely existed when NAFTA took effect a quarter century ago. It also requires car companies to use more North American parts if they want to sell cars here duty-free, and it includes a $16 an hour minimum wage for some auto production that could shift some manufacturing from Mexico to the U.S. and Canada.

On the whole, though, the USMCA is more of an update to NAFTA than a wholesale replacement. It's estimated to increase GDP by only about one-third of 1%. Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research says what the deal does do is avoid the hit to the economy that would have happened had Trump made good on his threat to scrap NAFTA with nothing to take its place.

KRISTIN DZICZEK: It means an end to uncertainty around what the future of trading rules will be in North America.

HORSLEY: The agreement also gives House Democrats an accomplishment they can point to other than the impeachment inquiry. That's especially important to moderate lawmakers from swing states like Cindy Axne of Iowa. Farmers in her state depend on a continued flow of North American free trade.

CINDY AXNE: I'm very happy to see where we're at with this and moving this agenda forward. We know how important this is for states like Iowa and the Midwest and the country in general, so this is a great day.

HORSLEY: Congressional leaders say the updated version of the trade deal could come to a vote on the House floor as early as next week.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.