What happens next on NAFTA talks? U.S. Congress is still in the dark

What's next on NAFTA? U.S. Congress still in dark

WASHINGTON — What happens next for North American trade talks? It’s not just Canadians and Mexicans who’d like to know. So would members of the United States Congress, who actually have a legal role in trade talks.

The American law allowing fast-track approval for trade deals sets out two necessary steps involving lawmakers: first, the president must give Congress 90 days’ notice before entering into negotiations, then must consult members.

The Canadian Press surveyed key lawmakers in an attempt to gauge the next steps. It did so this week because the U.S. Senate approved Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary —and Ross will be involved in NAFTA negotiations, says President Donald Trump.

It found uncertainty.

The confusion stems partly from the fact that it’s neither Ross’s legal role to lead trade negotiations, nor to consult Congress. Those responsibilities fall to another cabinet member — the U.S. trade representative.

But Ross’s colleague is having a rough time getting confirmed. Robert Lighthizer’s approval as U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) could be delayed for months, amid partisan stalling and because past legal work for foreign governments means he needs a special waiver from Congress.

To top it all off, the U.S. Senate committee tasked to deal with trade is currently slammed with major projects — the biggest overhaul of the U.S. tax code in 31 years, and reforms to the Obamacare health system.

So what might happen now?

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—John McCain, Republican. Thirty-year senator, former presidential nominee.

“I have no idea. I like NAFTA, just what it is.”

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—Chris Collins, Republican. House member from New York. Liaison to Congress for the Trump presidential transition team.

“I think you need your trade rep (first). I think (Ross has) got a lot to do right now.”

Does that mean talks might be held up for months? Collins replied: “Yup.”

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—Mike Crapo, Republican. Member of the Senate Finance committee, which needs to be consulted under fast-track law.

“Yes and no,” he said when asked whether the NAFTA process can start without the U.S. trade representative being confirmed. “Yes, we can start, but we do need the USTR.”

But can the 90-day consultation actually start without the USTR? “I don’t know the answer to that,” he replied.

Will NAFTA negotiations start in a few months? Or even this year?

Crapo replied: “I don’t have any information about when, or what process will be used.”

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—John Thune, Republican. No. 3-highest-ranking member of the Senate. Member of the key Senate Finance committee.

“I hope that we can start talking about trade. … If they’re gonna re-examine NAFTA, yeah, it should get underway now that we have Wilbur Ross in place.”

However, when asked about the legal role played by the U.S. trade representative he replied: “I’m not sure exactly what the legal trigger is, but if that’s true, then we need to get a U.S. trade rep in place. That’s probably gonna take a little bit of time.”

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—Debbie Stabenow, Democrat. Member of the key Senate Finance committee.

“I’m not sure how the Trump administration wants to do it. I think it’d be difficult without the USTR in place. … We’ll wait and see, I have no idea. It’ll be interesting. … I definitely need more information.”

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—Pat Toomey, Republican. Member of the key Senate Finance committee.

Asked: Is a USTR required to start NAFTA negotiations?

Replied: “I don’t know the answer to that.”

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—Canadian trade lawyer Mark Warner. When asked for his assessment, he said it could go both ways. On the one hand, he said Trump could proceed quickly, put Ross in charge and view the USTR confirmation as a legal formality, because the office already has an acting director.

On the other hand, he said there are good reasons to wait.

Congress is already tied up with major projects — and one affects the other. For example, Warner said the White House might want to see what tax plan Congress approves, and whether it deals with trade through import-export adjustments.

But Trump himself has said he wants to see something else before a final tax plan — and that’s changes to the Obamacare health reform. He noted that health policy will have a big effect on public finances and, therefore, taxes.

Agreement on a health reforms remains elusive.

So does Warner think the NAFTA process gets launched soon, even without a U.S. trade representative confirmed? “As a practical matter, it is not something I think they would do,” he said. “(Trump) needs his USTR in place to talk to Congress.”

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version described the U.S. tax code overhaul as the biggest in 41 years.