PHARR — A forum in Pharr on Friday headlined by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar provided insights to the recently negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, its potential positive impact to the Rio Grande Valley and the prospects of the agreement’s passage in Congress.
“I believe it will be taken up for a vote this fall,” said Cuellar, the Democrat of Laredo whose district stretches along the Rio Grande to Mission.
It was a prediction of a vote that has eluded Congress and what officials have said needs to happen this fall for any chance at a passage. The United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement was approved last year by the three countries during a summit in South America. But only the Congress in Mexico has approved the trade pact.
The vote in the U.S. has been left to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring to the floor.
“She has to work the House and there’s nobody who knows it better than she does,” Cornyn said during the forum at the Pharr Events Center on Friday, which also featured Luis Bazan, director of the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, Keith Patridge, president of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, Ralph Cowen from the Port of Brownsville, Veronica Gonzalez from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Salvador Contreras, who runs the Border Economics program at UTRGV.
Cornyn added: “I agree with Henry — if they tee it up in the House, then it will pass the Senate.”
The impacts to the region could be substantial, various speakers said.
“We see huge potential opportunities for the border communities, and particularly the Rio Grande Valley,” Patridge said.
If the last 25 years were any indication following the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, the new agreement could keep trade through South Texas trending upward.
“During that period of time, personal income quadrupled and employment doubled,” Contreras said.
Patridge added that 697 companies have opened during that same stretch, with half in the U.S. and half across the border in Mexico.
The new agreement has some sticking points for some Democrats, which Cuellar said he is hoping to help iron out. One notable change to the new USMCA agreement calls for 75% of automobiles to be assembled and manufactured in North America, up from 62.5% under NAFTA.
The window this fall is narrow for the agreement’s passage, and Patridge cautioned that there’s a provision in NAFTA that allows for the president to pull out of the pact within six months. While President Trump has threatened that before, he has not gone that far, and Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, has not advised Trump to do so.
“My advice to Ambassador Lighthizer and anyone else who’s listening: That’s a terrible idea,” Cornyn said.