April 13, 2018

Pro-trade New Democrat Coalition eyes first meeting with Lighthizer

Inside U.S. Trade

Pro-trade New Democrat Coalition eyes first meeting with Lighthizer

April 11, 2018

Editor's note: This story was updated after initial publication to note that the New Democrat Coalition is seeking a meeting with the U.S. Trade Representative in the coming weeks, not next Wednesday.

The New Democrat Coalition, a bloc of pro-trade lawmakers seen as a key source of potential support for new trade deals, is hoping to meet for the first time with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in the coming weeks, coalition members and a spokeswoman for the group told Inside U.S. Trade.

The New Democrat Coalition includes more than 60 House members who generally support a pro-growth agenda and are more favorable to trade agreements than many of their colleagues in the House Democratic Caucus. The group last year modified seven task forces, including one dedicated to trade issues, that are responsible for meeting with stakeholders and developing short- and long-term policy positions for the coalition.

Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI), a member of the coalition and a former chairman, said the coalition sees the meeting with Lighthizer and his team as a way to nudge the administration’s trade policy “back on track again.”

“We know how tough trade is to begin with and it’s going to require some bipartisan support at the end of the day, and now that he’s had a chance to settle in, we thought this was an opportune time to get together with them and introduce them to the group,” he told Inside U.S. Trade.

“Obviously the New Dems have leaned in pretty heavily when it comes to a robust trade agenda for our country; we want to help the administration get it back on trade again,” he said, adding that such a redirection would entail trying “to find a safe landing zone for the NAFTA negotiations as well as the ongoing [Section] 301 and steel tariff issue.”

Kind said the group also plans to probe USTR to see “whether there is a slight opening to re-engage on [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] and figure out if we can get back into the fastest growing region of the global economy that we are on the outside looking in on now.”

“We are waiting to see where they land on all of this but hopefully there will be a robust labor and environmental chapter in it, human rights, cross-border data -- a lot of the things, quite frankly, that were negotiated in TPP, which would make for a nice modern NAFTA agreement,” he said. “I just think it’s important for the ambassador to come meet with us so we can start a two-way line of communication.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), co-chair of the coalition’s task force on trade and global competitiveness, told Inside U.S. Trade the meeting was one “we’ve been trying to set up for a while.”

Meeks characterized the gathering as a “feel-out” meeting “to see where we they are because no one has been clear to us.”

The coalition, Meeks continued, set up the meeting to get a better understanding of the administration’s broader strategy on trade “mainly so we can understand and make some sense as to what’s going on with regards to trade,” he told Inside U.S. Trade. “I think it’s very confusing.”

“My Republican colleagues who are big pro-traders -- at least they were -- they’re not saying anything or talking about it and I think they’re not because they don’t know,” he added. “So the only ones we can go to are in the administration.”

Trade analysts and sources on Capitol Hill view the New Democrats as a crucial source of Democratic support for trade agreements from a party that has opposed many free trade deals. While members of the coalition agree with their Democratic colleagues that trade deals, including a new NAFTA, must include strong labor and environmental rules, those are not make-or-break issues for their support, sources said.

The New Democrats met weekly with President Obama’s USTR, Michael Froman, when his administration hoped to pass TPP, but sources say Lighthizer has not shown the group anything close to that level of attention.

Some sources said lawmakers within and beyond the New Democrats coalition have felt “snubbed” by Lighthizer and bemoaned what they have seen as USTR’s lack of responsiveness to requests for meetings and briefings, adding that such an “attitude” could “cost a few votes” for a new NAFTA.

Asked what trade priorities the bloc would focus on during the meeting, Meeks said he hoped everything from NAFTA to newly announced tariffs on Chinese products would be addressed.

“I think we are concerned about the tariffs and whether or not there’s any plan behind the China -- I don’t want to say it’s a plan because I don’t know what it is,” he said.

The coalition also plans to ask if there’s “any workings with our allies as we’re moving forward” and whether the administration planned to follow its obligations outlined in the Trade Promotion Authority law when negotiating NAFTA and future deals.

Meeks said he hoped to see language crafted for TPP used in a retooled NAFTA. “Those [TPP] agreements were reviewed substantively -- that’s another reason why I thought we should join TPP because it fixed the holes that were in NAFTA,” he said.

The lawmaker knocked the administration for transparency issues and a lack of congressional engagement during the modernization of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement and said the deliverables -- outlined in an agreement in principle reached last month -- lacked substance.

“I’m really interested in seeing their [NAFTA] proposals because thus far what I saw happening with South Korea -- there was really nothing of substance there,” Meeks said. “So, there was nothing there -- I mean they talked about all these things but they just wanted to say ‘we renegotiated something.’”

-- Isabelle Hoagland (ihoagland@iwpnews.com) and Jack Caporal(jcaporal@iwpnews.com).