Groups beginning to work toward congressional passage of the new trade agreement among the U.S., Mexico and Canada, should first focus on making sure there is a vote, says a former Clinton administration official who worked on the North American Free Trade Agreement 25 years ago.

Robert Kyle mug

Robert Kyle, former special assistant to President Bill Clinton.

Robert Kyle, now a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Hogan Lovells, was special assistant for international trade and finance to President Bill Clinton. Kyle worked on congressional approval of NAFTA in 1994.

In an interview with Capital Press, Kyle said USMCA is one of the largest trade initiatives of the Trump administration.

“People are focused on whether it will pass or fail, but a third option is no action,” Kyle said.

In 2008, President George W. Bush had negotiated the U.S. Colombia Free Trade Agreement and wanted it passed by Congress. Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked it and it wasn’t passed until Republicans controlled the House and Barack Obama was president in 2011.

“The possibility this (USMCA) might not move at all is a real possibility. I’m not saying it won’t but one of the options is no action,” Kyle said.

If that happens, NAFTA could remain in effect but more likely President Donald Trump will withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA with six months notice and trade will revert to pre-1994 terms resulting in higher tariffs and could precipitate a trade war, Kyle said.

There could be litigation over the president’s authority to withdraw, but Congress would be faced with choosing between USMCA or pre-NAFTA conditions, he said.

“It would be a high-stakes strategy but the president could take this course if he felt Congress would not act otherwise,” Kyle said.

Democratic members of Congress in swing agricultural districts “may quietly want it to go through,” he said.

Debate over the U.S.-Mexico border wall and trade negotiations with China have stalled progress on USMCA and Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, ranking member of Ways and Means, has said he will oppose taking up USMCA until Trump lifts steel and aluminum restrictions on Canada and Mexico, Kyle said. It’s “ambitious” for the administration to expect USMCA passage by June, he said.

Meanwhile, former Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., who lost his 2018 primary election to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, became honorary co-chair of the Pass USMCA Coalition, on Feb. 21.

Crowley was chair of the House Democratic Caucus, fourth in leadership behind Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Crowley joins former Democratic Washington Gov. Gary Locke as coalition co-chair. Locke was announced as the coalition was launched on Feb. 13. He also is former ambassador to China and former secretary of commerce.

“I’m excited to join the coalition,” Crowley said in a press release. “USMCA is a landmark trade victory for American’s workers. My former colleagues should take action to ratify the agreement quickly.”

Central Washington field reporter

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