On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, there were signs of the increased stakes in the NAFTA talks: Business and agricultural groups mounted a lobbying push targeting more than 250 House members, and the Ways and Means chairman seemed to say businesses have reason to worry.
At the White House, in the most visible and symbolic moment of the day, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with President Donald Trump, who relishes being unpredictable.
Trump didn’t have anything to say about the progress in the trade talks — although two more days were tacked onto the latest round — but he fell back on his oft-repeated threat to withdraw from the deal and said he was open to pursuing a trade deal just with Canada if the three-party NAFTA talks fail.
Trudeau took it all in stride and, at least publicly. “I think it’s been clear that circumstances are often challenging and have to be ready for anything, and we are," Trudeau told reporters at the Canadian Embassy after his White House meeting.
The current set of discussions is expected to be the most contentious yet, and business and agricultural groups prepared accordingly. Their lobbying effort, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was estimated to bring together more than 100 representatives of various groups — an "army," as Chamber President and CEO Thomas Donohue phrased it — assembled to end the "roller-coaster ride" of uncertainty and to ensure that a reworked pact meets the needs of commerce in the 21st century market.
Among those sending foot soldiers to the effort included the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Foreign Trade Council, the Coalition of Services Industries, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council.
Donohue said that American business groups were concerned over a host of Trump administration proposals that would be unacceptable to many industries, including a clause that would allow the pact to automatically terminate after five years, unless the three countries agree to renew it. Many corporate sectors also oppose a proposal the administration was expected to make this round that would transform NAFTA’s investor-state dispute settlement process into a voluntary arrangement for governments.
"There are sober-minded decision-makers within the administration, and we are urging them to step up and be heard," Donohue said in a speech in Mexico City on the eve of Round 4. "Some of the most powerful members of Congress also wield tremendous influence on trade issues. We are encouraging them to stay strong under pressure and to steel their resolve for what could be a big a fight."
As the latest round kicked off Wednesday in Arlington, Va., House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) delivered a message that seemed to align with the position of business and farm groups by calling on U.S. negotiators to produce a draft deal that would preserve the competitiveness of the North American trading bloc. Brady’s recipe for 2.0 success left out several Trump administration proposals that business groups fear could have negative economic effects, and stressed that Congress would use its oversight authority to ensure "these negotiations are successful."
Brady spoke alongside Trudeau, whose appearance on Capitol Hill at the outset of what could be a defining round in the renegotiation was not without strategic significance and served as a prelude to his afternoon meeting with Trump.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer chose Twitter, Trump’s favorite social media forum, to urge the administration to hold town hall meetings in 10 states to garner suggestions on priorities in trade with Canada and Mexico.
"When it comes to NAFTA, Trump Admin should carefully listen to the public & stakeholders to negotiate the best outcome for American workers," the New York Democrat tweeted this morning, adding: "US workers deserve an open, transparent NAFTA negotiation, not a backroom deal."
Other groups have also called for greater transparency in the administration’s approach to the NAFTA renegotiation. Late last month, John Murphy, the Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president for international affairs, said USTR has done an "inadequate" job of ensuring that the business sector has been apprised of developments during the NAFTA talks.
"Such an approach is undermining business support, which will ultimately be needed to secure final passage on any agreement put before the Congress,” Murphy said.
A representative from USTR could not be reached for comment on Schumer’s tweets. But the office had pushed back in response to Murphy’s comments, saying the agency follows all trade approval protocols "which includes consultation with interagency officials, Congress, and cleared private sector advisers."
"Any suggestion to the contrary is incorrect," USTR spokeswoman Emily Davis added.
Last week, the AFL-CIO also raised concerns over transparency, faulting the administration for "negotiating behind closed doors" — an accusation that was also leveled against the Obama administration during the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. Past administrations have defended the need for confidentiality in trade talks, saying that negotiators shouldn’t be hamstrung by having every proposal debated in the public spotlight.
Doug Palmer and Sabrina Rodriguez contributed to this report.