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Lighthizer, Kushner headed to Mexico to sign new NAFTA deal

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After a series of intense, back-and-forth meetings in Washington over the last two weeks, the U.S. and Mexico reached an agreement on the major points on Saturday and have been working since then to get Democrats on board.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, whose support is crucial to getting Democrats’ approval, briefed his executive council Monday afternoon on changes to the pact and is now willing to let the agreement move forward, two people close to the talks told POLITICO.

Although the deal is widely seen as a crucial pre-election year win for Trump, Pelosi has been emphasizing that passing a new NAFTA goes beyond partisan politics, particularly given Democrats’ long history of criticizing the old pact’s harm on American workers.

“There are those who I read about in one place or another that say, why would you give President Trump a victory?” Pelosi said at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council forum on Monday night. “Well, why wouldn’t we? This is the right thing to do for our trade situation, for our workers.”

The new trade deal keeps tariff-free trade among the three countries. But it’s a departure from NAFTA in that it includes stricter rules for how autos made in the three countries can qualify for preferential treatment on duties. It also includes modernized digital trade rules and stronger labor and environmental standards.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner are traveling to Mexico City to participate in a signing ceremony on Tuesday, several people close to the talks told POLITICO. Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland will also be present, her office confirmed.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter Monday night that the negotiating teams from the U.S., Mexico and Canada will meet at 1 p.m. Eastern to announce the “advancements reached” on the trade deal. Barring any last-minute objections from House Democrats or labor officials, a ceremony involving the three nations will take place then, a person familiar with the planning process said.

Democratic aides have been privately saying that they are confident there is a deal. Pelosi met Monday evening with lawmakers who were tasked with negotiating with the administration on various changes to the pact.

Members emerged from the meeting sounding positive on the agreement and saying they expect a formal announcement sometime Tuesday.

“I think we should be able to have a vote by the end of the year,” Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who has led House Democrats’ negotiations with the Trump administration, told reporters.

Neal added that he is “delighted” with the changes to the deal and it is “substantially improved” from the original NAFTA.

Democrats do still have a window to vote for USMCA this year as the House Ways and Means Committee is expected to skip mock-ups and put the deal straight to the floor for a vote.

Some senior Democrats are speculating that a vote for USMCA could come on Dec. 19, the day after the House is expected to vote on impeachment. Pelosi has already said she doesn’t want impeachment to be the last thing members vote on before the holiday recess.

Over the past several weeks, House Democrats and labor officials worked with the Trump administration and Mexico to settle on a compromise. POLITICO reported on Saturday that the U.S. and Mexico had resolved the major outstanding issues and were checking with all parties to see if further changes were needed.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been eager to wrap up negotiations with the Trump administration on the North American trade pact. López Obrador said Monday that “now is the time” to pass the deal.

The USTR office did not reply to a request for comment.

Kushner has played an active role behind the scenes during the 13 months of negotiations between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

The previous administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto had such a close relationship with Kushner that he was awarded the highest honor the Mexican government can bestow on a foreigner last year on the same day the new NAFTA was signed by the three countries. Kushner has maintained a close relationship with the López Obrador administration.

The latest flurry of action comes after the U.S. and Mexico have spent several days in long meetings and exchanges to update the pact to better reflect Democrats’ priorities in areas like labor standards and enforcement.

Trump and Trumka also spoke over the phone on Monday about the deal, a person familiar with the discussion told POLITICO.

Democrats have for months been working closely with Trumka in an attempt to reach a deal that organized labor can support — or at least will not openly oppose. An endorsement from the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor federation, is likely to garner enough support for the USMCA from congressional Democrats to pass the deal in the House.

A backing by the AFL-CIO would be a marked departure from past practices, as the federation has not endorsed any trade deal in nearly two decades. The labor group could also agree to remain publicly neutral on the new agreement, which would still give many Democrats cover to support it.

In an attempt to get labor officials — and, by extension, congressional Democrats — on board with the agreement, Lighthizer has offered up numerous changes in recent weeks to appeal to their priorities.

One proposal on the table is meant to tighten the definition of what qualifies as North American steel. Ebrard said Sunday that Mexico would accept the demand on steel if the rule takes effect at least five years after USMCA is ratified.

Democrats have also demanded stricter enforcement of the pact’s labor standards and asked for inspections of Mexican factories. Ebrard flatly rejected the inspections idea, so it remains unclear if the issue has been resolved.

It’s also unclear what provisions have made it into the final deal. Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, both members of the tight-lipped group of Democrats that negotiated changes to the deal, acknowledged on Monday evening that they still need to see what the final deal looks like on paper.

Asked if she supports the changes, DeLauro said: “I want to. I worked very, very hard on this. I need to read what the changes are.”

As Democrats continue to negotiate with the Trump administration, congressional Republicans are growing increasingly eager to vote on the pact, which the three countries first signed a year ago.

Nearly 160 Republican members of the House wrote to Pelosi on Monday strongly urging a vote on the deal before the end of 2019.

“The House should finally stop dithering on USMCA and pass this critically important trade agreement,” wrote the lawmakers, led by House Agriculture ranking member Mike Conaway (R-Texas).

Heather Caygle, Burgess Everett, John Bresnahan, Adam Behsudi and Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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