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House Dem leaders endorse revised trade deal with Canada, Mexico

Pelosi said she doesn't care whether approving the new NAFTA handed Trump a victory or not. It was a reminder that the parties play by very different rules.
Image: 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration
WASHINGTON, USA - JANUARY 20: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) President-elect Donald Trump greets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Congressional...

One of Donald Trump's top legislative priorities for this Congress is passage of a trade deal called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which is really just a rebranded NAFTA, with some updated provisions. The president has spent months upbraiding Democrats for failing to approve NAFTA 2.0, while Democratic lawmakers pushed for changes to the agreement.

As of this morning, those negotiations appear to have succeeded. Less than an hour after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other leaders from her party unveiled articles of impeachment against the president, they announced their support for the revised trade deal with the United States' neighbors. The changes, among other things, are intended to lower prescription drug costs, while boosting environmental and labor safeguards.

"There is no question, of course, that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA, but in terms of our work here, it is infinitely better than what was initially proposed by the administration," Pelosi said. "It's a victory for America's workers, it's one that we take great pride in advancing." [...]Democrats sought to highlight their contributions to the deal -- such as removing carveouts for pharmaceutical companies, among others, and barriers to generic medications -- and how hard they'd worked on the deal to improve it from the White House's first draft.

Acknowledging the political circumstances, the House Speaker added, in reference to the president, "There's some people who say, 'Why make it look like he has a victory?' Well, we're declaring victory for the American worker."

To be sure, it's a complex political dynamic. Pelosi was facing pressure from some of her members who believed the new NAFTA would help their constituents economically. She was also facing pressure from some House Democrats who wanted symbolic evidence that the party could tackle legislative priorities and presidential accountability at the same time.

There were also, of course, plenty of Dems who saw the existing NAFTA as sufficient and concluded there was no compelling reason to hand Trump a victory, in exchange for practically nothing.

But in the end, Pelosi approached the issue in the opposite way of how Republicans approached policy disputes throughout the Obama era.

For eight years, GOP leaders tended to reflexively oppose any measures endorsed by the Obama administration -- even when Republicans agreed with the Democratic White House's position -- just as a matter of course. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was quite candid on his strategy, acknowledging that he believed one of the keys to undermining Barack Obama's public support was keeping GOP "fingerprints" off major legislation in order to deny Obama any bipartisan victories.

Pelosi, in contrast, seemed to approach the USMCA debate in a fundamentally different way. She evaluated the proposal on the merits, sought changes, ignored presidential taunts, negotiated with stakeholders, and put aside electoral considerations. Indeed, the Speaker explicitly acknowledged this morning that she simply didn't care whether approving the new NAFTA handed Trump a victory or not.

It was a striking reminder that the major parties play by spectacularly different rules.

Postscript: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared on Fox Business this morning and accused Democratic leaders of embracing the trade agreement as a way to "distract people" from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz's report.

First, the Horowitz report is actually horrible for Team Trump, so Ross' line really doesn't make any sense. Second, note that even congressional Democrats work constructively with the White House, and they deliver on what the president wanted, the Trump administration still criticizes Dems.