U.S. President Donald Trump, center reacts during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg)

Lawmakers Urge Trump to Stay at Nafta Table as Talks Slow

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. lawmakers urged the Trump administration not to walk away from talks on a new Nafta a day after America’s top negotiator said the countries are still far from a deal.

“It’s important that the United States, Canada, and Mexico stay at the table to negotiate a new and modernized Nafta that grows U.S. jobs and helps us sell more ‘Made in America’ products,” Kevin Brady, Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Friday in a statement. Ways and Means is the main committee in the House of Representatives that oversees trade policy.

Brady said he hoped the three nations “continue working in good faith to get this done -- whether that means a vote in Congress this year or next.”

The plea came a day after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer warned the three nations are “nowhere near close to a deal” to update the region’s 24-year-old free-trade pact and negotiators missed a top legislator’s deadline for progress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan had said he’d need be notified of the intent to sign a new Nafta by May 17 to pass all the legal hurdles and give the current Congress the chance to vote on it this year. On Thursday, Ryan extended that timeframe to the next week or two.

No Bets

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, speaking in Washington on Friday, said he didn’t want to hazard a guess over the outcome of Nafta talks.

“We’ve got at least another week according to Speaker Ryan, so we’ll see how it goes,” said Kudlow. “It’s in formation, it’s not dead. I don’t want to even bet on it at the moment.”

There’s a lot left to accomplish, according to Lighthizer. He pointed to “gaping differences” over many proposals ranging from intellectual property to agricultural market access and rules over automotive content requirements. “We of course will continue to engage in negotiations, and I look forward to working with my counterparts to secure the best possible deal for American farmers, ranchers, workers, and businesses,” Lighthizer said Thursday.

Lighthizer’s doubts dashed hopes for a quick resolution after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier on Thursday in New York expressed optimism about reaching an agreement soon, while noting that differences remain.

Trade Talks

The three countries have been negotiating for nine months to modernize Nafta, and midterm congressional elections in the U.S. and a Mexican presidential campaign this year have raised the urgency for a quick resolution. Trump has threatened to withdraw from the pact if he can’t rework it to shrink America’s trade deficit and boost manufacturing jobs.

Prolonging a final agreement beyond this year may “add an element of uncertainty around the outcome,” William Foster, a vice president at Moody’s Investors Service, said in a statement on Friday.

Moody’s sees an agreement coming together at some point, which could impact Mexico and Canada more than the U.S. because of their bigger reliance on Nafta-related trade, Foster said.

Business Worries

A key U.S. business group on Friday reiterated its concerns about some of the Trump administration’s Nafta demands, such as introducing a clause that the deal would automatically expire after five years unless the parties agree to extend it. The Business Roundtable said it wants the U.S. to remain in the deal whether it’s updated or not.

“Issuing an intent to withdraw from Nafta would imperil millions of U.S. jobs and the competitiveness of U.S. companies,” the group said. “Whether or not all three nations can come to an agreement in the coming days or weeks should not drive us away from the goal of preserving and strengthening Nafta’s benefits.”

In a letter Friday, representatives Richard Neal of Massachusetts and Bill Pascrell of New Jersey sent a letter to Ryan asking the speaker to explain his shifting deadline for Nafta notification. “What happens now?” wrote Neal, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means committee, and Pascrell, who also sits on the panel. “We cannot sit back and be satisfied with the status quo.”

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, plans to send a letter to Lighthizer warning that Trump’s ultimatum to withdraw from the pact would be a dangerous negotiating tactic.

“A take-it or leave-it strategy could have negative unintended effects that jeopardize American jobs and economic growth,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by Bloomberg on Thursday.

Bipartisan support for a modernized Nafta is “only achievable through a strategy to constructively engage members of Congress” as required under the law to fast-track trade deals, and “without attempting to force a choice between negative outcomes,” Cornyn said in the draft letter.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.