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MP Hoback ‘disappointed’ in lack of Trudeau-Pelosi contact as USMCA talks get testy south of border

By Neil Moss      

But observers of the Ottawa-Washington relationship say it isn't a pressing concern for Mr. Trudeau to speak with the leader of the U.S. House Democrats.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, is in the middle of negotiations with the White House over the implementation of the USMCA in the House of Representatives, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, is set to table a USMCA implementation bill in the House of Commons. Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Flickr and The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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As the Canadian government prepares to table an implementation bill for the renegotiated North American trade pact in the House of Commons, an opposition MP says he’s “surprised” the prime minister hasn’t spoken to the American politician in charge of shepherding the agreement through the U.S. House of Representatives.

A government official told The Hill Times that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) has yet to speak with Nancy Pelosi since she became House Speaker. They last spoke when Mr. Trudeau was in Washington, D.C., in 2016. Ms. Pelosi was the House Minority leader at the time.

Ms. Pelosi and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives—which has the Congressional jurisdiction to introduce legislation to implement trade agreements—has the authority to make changes to the draft implementing legislation they will receive from the White House.

Conservative MP Randy Hoback (Prince Albert, Sask.) said he was surprised that Mr. Trudeau hasn’t spoken to Ms. Pelosi, as it’s important to build the relationship and establish trust, so when an issue arises it can be dealt with.

“I’m very surprised they haven’t reached out to her and started to build that relationship with her,” Mr. Hoback told The Hill Times earlier this month. “That just disappoints me when I hear that.”

When former prime minister Brian Mulroney was invited to speak to the Canada-U.S. cabinet committee in 2017, he impressed on those in the room the importance in developing strong relationships with the president, as well as Congressional leaders.

Mr. Trudeau’s U.S. counterpart and principal diplomatic contact is President Donald Trump. They have spoken more than 30 times since November 2016.

The USMCA was singed by then-Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Nov. 30. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

A United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) implementation bill could be tabled in the House of Commons at any time, after it was listed on the notice paper on May 28, allowing the bill to be tabled within 48 hours. Reuters and CBC News both reported on the afternoon of May 28 that the bill would be tabled May 29.

Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) told reporters on May 28 that Canada will be “aligning” itself with the “pace” of the U.S. administration for ratification, ahead of U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence’s May 30 visit to Ottawa to talk about the agreement.

Opposition MPs have raised concerns that ratification is being rushed, in the midst of ongoing implementation negotiations between Ms. Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership and Mr. Trump’s trade czar Robert Lighthizer. The Democrats have objected to the lack of labour and environmental safeguards in the deal.

USMCA was signed by the three countries on Nov. 30, but has yet to be ratified. It only comes into force after all three countries have ratified the agreement.

NDP MP Tracey Ramsey (Essex, Ont.) said it would be “foolish” for MPs to vote on the USMCA while the House Democrats are pushing for “very progressive changes” to the trade agreement, and Mr. Hoback said there shouldn’t be a vote until Canada is given “strong assurances” that the “spirit” of the deal won’t be altered by the House Democrats, their party’s international trade and deputy international trade critics, respectively.

Canadian outreach has other avenues

Andrea van Vugt, a former Harper PMO policy adviser and chief of staff to then-trade minister Ed Fast, said, procedurally, there are two distinct tracks between the U.S. administration and Congress, and the U.S. administration and the Canadian government.

“If the administration feels as though they cannot resolve senior Democratic leadership concerns in Congress about the deal through implementation, then it is for the administration who negotiated the deal to return to the Canadian government and Mexican government and indicate that … the government requires a change,” Ms. van Vugt said.

Throughout NAFTA renegotiations and its campaign to remove steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by Mr. Trump, the Canadian government has put a concerted effort in its Congressional outreach.

Mr. Trudeau spoke with then-House speaker Paul Ryan and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2017 when he was on Capitol Hill.

The government official said Congressional outreach from Mr. Trudeau isn’t something the government is against, but the opportunity hasn’t presented itself recently.

Observers of the Ottawa-Washington relationship said it isn’t a pressing concern for Mr. Trudeau to speak with the House Democrats, as Ms. Pelosi hasn’t positioned herself as a forceful opponent of the deal.

“She would prefer not to give Trump a win, but her main concern is managing her members who are divided and unruly,” said Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in an email.

He added that Canada’s message to the House Democrats should be “mild” support for USMCA, happiness that the steel and aluminum tariffs have been removed, and to seek an update to the timeline of ratification in the House of Representatives. An agreement was reached to remove the tariffs and the retaliatory tariffs Canada placed on U.S. products on May 17.

“All of which can be conveyed by the ambassador,” Prof. Sands said.

He said Mr. Trudeau has cultivated a strong relationship with the Democrats and could pick up the phone and advocate Canada’s case with them at “any time.”

“Going to D.C. personally, or inviting Pelosi to visit Ottawa, would only be needed now to reassure Canadian voters that he is handling the U.S. well. I think he has covered himself on this, and most Canadians blame Trump for problems in the relationship,” Prof. Sands said.

There were hopeful signs that a breakthrough could be reached between the White House and House Democrats after Ms. Pelosi told Mr. Lighthizer that the Democrats would set up working groups to address labour, environmental, and pharmaceutical issues with the trade agreement, according to a May 21 Bloomberg report. A fourth working group is being set up to deal with miscellaneous issues.

But a meeting between the Democratic leadership and Mr. Trump turned heated after Ms. Pelosi said “the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up [over Russian electoral interference].” Mr. Trump said the White House couldn’t work with the Democrats if they didn’t stop investigating him.

“When the ‘extremely stable genius’ starts acting more presidential, I’ll be happy to work with him on infrastructure, trade and other issues,” Ms. Pelosi tweeted in response.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) last spoke with Ms. Pelosi at the Munich Security Conference in March, according to the government official.

Ms. Freeland was in Washington earlier this month holding meetings on Capitol Hill, including with Democrat Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the chair of the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade.

It has long been the position of the Canadian government that they are unwilling to go back to the negotiation table to deal with Democrat concerns.

Liberal MP Mark Eyking (Sydney-Victoria, N.S.), chair of the House International Trade Committee, said when he was in Washington with the committee, Democrats close to Ms. Pelosi told them there isn’t a strong desire to renegotiate.

“We [were] hearing from Pelosi’s people that nobody’s in the mood to open this up,” he said.

nmoss@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

Graphic by Aidan Chamandy

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