Speaker Ryan sets May 17 NAFTA deadline

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan imposed a May 17 deadline for the Trump administration to deliver a NAFTA deal to Congress if the president wants a vote on a new agreement in 2018.

Aware of the U.S. legislative timeline, and the Trade Promotion Authority, top trade officials from Canada, Mexico and the United States were in Washington all week hoping to hammer out details in which they’ve been unable to make amends. But the U.S. trade representative issued a statement late Friday afternoon that may have dampened the probability of reaching some sort of agreement by Ryan’s deadline.

Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer called the current NAFTA a “seriously flawed trade deal” in the statement. He said the three countries will work “to achieve needed breakthroughs.” Some of those sticking points he’s hoping to breakthrough on include disagreements on a sunset clause and rules of origin percentages, according to members of Congress.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Washington that the three countries still have a “very long to-do list.” Mexico’s Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo, regarding the May 17 deadline, also told reporters, “I have to make very clear the quality of the agreement and the balance of the agreement has to be maintained.”

This comes after sporadic negotiating rounds that began in August, following President Donald Trump’s threats to withdraw from the two-decade old pact that transformed the Rio Grande Valley. While the July 1 Mexican Presidential election and November’s U.S. midterms have long been looming obstacles, Ryan’s May 17 deadline was the first sense of urgency applied on the Trump administration.

The reason Ryan gave the mid-May deadline was because that’s the only way Congress can vote on the new agreement before this Congress ends in 2018. If the Administration notifies Congress by Ryan’s deadline, a 180-day clock begins prior to signing the agreement, followed by a 90-day notification of the intention to sign the agreement, according to the TPA.

The administration then has to release the text of the agreement 60 days before the signing.

If there is some sort of agreement reached next week, members of Congress questioned what they will receive from the Trump administration, especially since TPA doesn’t require a release of the full text.

“What we’re hearing is what the administration would like to do, because they’d like to claim a victory up front, is declare they got an agreement in principle on NAFTA 2.0,” said U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, on Friday. “But it’s not gonna have a lot of details, because it’s just in principle.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar also floated this possibility.

“Will they give us a NAFTA that’s done completely where we can see details?” Cuellar said. “Or will they give us some agreement in principle? How can we vote on something where we don’t have the details?”

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, shared these concerns. While NAFTA revolutionized both Cuellar and Vela’s districts, O’Rourke’s district in El Paso, a much different border than the Valley, was transformed by the treaty, too.

“But it’s not just border communities, it’s all of Texas,” O’Rourke said. “I’ll be in Amarillo and Abilene later this weekend and much of what west Texas grows is destined for foreign markets, including Canada and Mexico. Whether its energy, food or fiber, Texas has a lot at stake in this.”