GOP to Dem candidates: Michigan needs Trump's new trade deal

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel (center) speaks to attendees at a Detroit roundtable Tuesday, July 30, 3019, to discuss President Donald Trump's proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. She was joined by several legislators and Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox (left) and co-chair Terry Bowman (right).

Detroit — State and national GOP leaders joined several state legislators and business owners Tuesday in a plea to U.S. House Democrats to hold a vote on the president’s proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel also urged CNN moderators to ask each of the 20 Democratic presidential candidates in Detroit about their stances on the proposed trade policy.

“They’ll be here for a brief flash before they head off to their other states and never come back again,” said McDaniel, the former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party. “If they really care about Michigan then they need to fight for USMCA to be passed.”

The round table discussion among GOP leaders at the Book Cadillac Westin hotel in Detroit occurred as Democratic presidential candidates prepare for the first night of debates at the Fox Theatre, where trade is expected to be covered given the event's setting in a stronghold of Midwest manufacturing.

Trade agreements have been a hot button issue since Trump’s 2016 campaign, when he told a Cleveland crowd that the North American Free Trade Agreement was "horrible" and vowed "Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo." 

As the president seeks to replace NAFTA with the U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement, he's encountered opposition from some House Democrats opposing an initiative that could be instrumental to Trump's 2020 campaign.

Vice President Mike Pence told reporters Tuesday that the “clock is ticking” as the Canadian and Mexican governments align on the agreement.

“We believe if Speaker Nancy Pelosi brings it to the floor it will pass,” Pence said. “We’re hopeful that in early September or October the House will pass it.”

Republican state legislators from the Thumb, Southeast Michigan, the Upper Peninsula and mid-Michigan voiced support for the trade agreement at the Detroit roundtable Tuesday.

The agreement is important not only for the manufacturing industry, but also for Michigan’s agriculture, which has suffered a double-whammy from the U.S.-China tariff war with the Chinese and excessive rain this spring, said Rep. Phil Green, a Republican lawmaker from the Thumb area of Michigan.

“This would have a huge impact on them,” Green said.

The agreement also will benefit manufacturing hubs in Southeast Michigan, said GOP Sen. Michael MacDonald, whose district includes areas of Macomb County, where blue collar voters helped to elect Trump in 2016. 

"The one thing voters care about more than anything else in the world is jobs and economic opportunity," MacDonald said. "That's what Donald Trump understand and that's what he's good at."

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox said it would be a disservice to hold the Democratic presidential debates in Detroit and fail to ask them about the international trade agreement.

“I urge them to make that question so we can hear what the candidates think on that,” Cox said.

On Friday, 14 House Democrats, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills, urged Pelosi to hold a vote on the measure by the end of the year, citing “frank and productive” talks with the Trump administration.

“It is imperative that we reach a negotiated agreement early in the fall,” the letter read. “Canada and Mexico are by far our most important trading partners, and we need to restore certainty in these critical relationships that support millions of Americans.”

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, said she wants to see stronger language on labor standards and enforcement added to the agreement but believes there is a path toward congressional approval.

“As someone who has seen a lot of international negotiations, I think the differences that remain are bridgeable and solvable,” said Slotkin, a former Defense Department official.

She credited Trade Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, lead negotiator on the deal, for being “extremely available” to members of Congress.

“I think that we will get this done,” Slotkin said. “But you can’t just go and sign another deal that doesn’t get to the root of the problem we had in the first version.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Tuesday the “jury is still out” on the trade deal and the current form is “not good enough,” citing concerns over enforcement of provisions designed to combat protectionists contracts in Mexico bargained by “sham” unions in order to keep wages low.

“There’s still problems with it,” Trumka said. “More has to be done to make it an acceptable agreement. If that happens, it’ll be in (Trump’s) plus column, and if it doesn’t, it will be in his negative comment and a promise broken.”

The national union leader said there are more than 700,000 protectionist contracts in Mexico that the country would need to renegotiate in the next four years under new labor laws that are already facing legal challenges there.

“We want to know what their plan is on how to implement that,” he said of Mexico. “Because if they don’t, no matter what else is in that agreement, it becomes unenforceable.”

McDaniel called the concerns “excuses” and blamed the lack of a House vote on Pelosi “dragging her feet” to stop Trump from claiming a victory on the trade deal ahead of his 2020 reelection.

“The president has negotiated,” McDaniel said. “He’s always brought them to the table. But I don’t think Nancy Pelosi is coming in with good intentions because she doesn’t want to see anything accomplished by this administration heading into the 2020 election.

Trump heavily courted blue-collar workers and union members in his 2016 campaign that saw him narrowly win Michigan by 10,704 votes.

Trumka predicted union votes will be the deciding factor in several swing states and said the AFL-CIO’s job is to give members “the facts” about the candidates, including Trump.

He noted Trump’s regulatory moves to scale back an Obama-era overtime pay rule and weaken workplace safety rules.

 “We’re going to tell them exactly what he’s done,” Trumka said. “And when you look at … the things he’s done to hurt workers, it’s much larger than the things he’s done to help workers.”

But GOP state Sen. Tom Barrett offered another narrative, one where workers aligned with a president fighting for a new trade deal with the potential for “leveling the playing field.”

“What you’re seeing is a realignment,” said the Dimondale lawmaker whose district includes GM’s Delta Township facility, one of the newest GM plants in North America. “Working class and middle class, average Americans, are supporting this president and this economy in initiatives like this.”

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