Centrist Democrats Have a New Idea to Win Reelection: Ignore Labor and Give Trump a Major Trade Deal

The chair of DCCC, with help from Joe Crowley, has privately argued that approving Trump’s free trade deal is important for vulnerable House Democrats.

UNITED STATES - JULY 16: Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Democratic caucus in the Capitol on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Rep. Cheri Bustos talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Democratic caucus in the Capitol on July 16, 2019. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP

Rep. Cheri Bustos, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is advocating internally for Democrats to wave through the House President Donald Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA, without any of the revisions demanded by labor unions and environmentalists — and despite concerns that it locks in high prescription drug prices.

Bustos has argued to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that approving Trump’s free trade deal is important for vulnerable House Democrats who recently flipped Republicans seats, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the Bustos strategy. The argument goes that those vulnerable Democrats would be able to demonstrate to constituents that while they may be pursuing impeachment, they are also willing to work across party lines with the president. Inside the House caucus, the messaging is referred to as showing the ability to “walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Pelosi’s office said the speaker did not intend to allow the trade agreement to move forward without addressing concerns from environmental, labor, and patients’ rights groups. A spokesperson for Bustos emphasized the Congresswoman’s support for labor and environment issues: “She and the speaker have taken meetings together with stakeholders to discuss these issues. The Congresswoman has faith in her colleagues currently working with our trade groups to resolve these issues – and has withheld her position on the trade deal until we see this process reach its conclusion – which she hopes is a trade deal that has support from a broad set of stakeholders. As she has said for months, there is still work to be done before we reach that point.” Publicly, Bustos has called for the trade deal to be strengthened in the key areas where progressives are pushing. “We’ve got to make sure that our workers are treated fairly and we have to make sure that the environmental concerns are addressed … and the enforcement of all of this,” Bustos said at a public event this summer. “If those things can get worked out, I think we can get to a ‘yes.’” A House leadership aide suggested that Bustos and the centrists pushing for a vote have an uphill climb, because the fall and spring floor schedule is crowded, and Bustos currently lacks the sway to work her will.

Bustos has help in making the DCCC’s argument to the caucus: former caucus Chair Joe Crowley, who was ousted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is now a paid lobbyist for Trump’s revised NAFTA, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. He’s joined in the effort by former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who has also become a lobbyist for Trump’s trade deal.

Bustos said labor unions and progressive Democrats “will have to get over it.”

Republicans, too, are urging the strategy on. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the top-ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, told CNBC viewers on Friday that he was optimistic Democrats would soon sign off on Trump’s deal. “I think we’re a couple weeks from getting a green light,” he said. Pelosi, he argued, needed a political win for moderates in the context of the impeachment fight, echoing the Bustos argument.

“This new trade agreement is everything Democrats dreamed of for labor and environment,” he said. “They have never sniffed the kinds of reforms you’re seeing in this agreement, and for her moderate and competitive members, they can’t go home with just impeachment in their pocket. They’ve got to have some economic growth.”

The push represents a remarkable gamble: that it is worth undermining key constituencies by signing a subpar agreement on the chance that it could help a handful of Democrats in swing districts win reelection. In addition, the assessment itself is questionable; if a voter is angry that a Democrat voted to impeach Trump, it’s difficult to see how that anger would be lessened by learning that the representative also voted for Trump’s trade deal. Endorsing bad Republican policy for uncertain political gain may be a hallmark of Democratic centrism, but supporting Trump’s unrevised trade deal is an unusually extreme example.

Rank-and-file House Democrats are worried that the poorly negotiated deal would lock in lower wages, environmental destruction, and higher drug prices for decades. USMCA is a renegotiated version of NAFTA, but only goes into effect if and when it is approved by Congress. The legislative branch is negotiating changes to the deal that would then need to be agreed to by Canada and Mexico. Without a new agreement, the old NAFTA remains in effect indefinitely.

Instead of rubber-stamping Trump’s trade deal to prove they can legislate, Rep. Rosa DeLauro argued, the party should point to its own record of passing legislation that McConnell has proudly obstructed.

Though the Bustos strategy has not previously been publicly reported, it is widely known among Democrats following the trade pact closely that Bustos is pursuing it and causing significant internal tension. Those tensions bubbled to the surface, in a coded way, in an op-ed published recently in The Hill by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who is a longtime ally of Pelosi’s, but a strong opponent of the trade deal in its current form. She began her op-ed, which called for revising the trade deal, with a rebuttal of the argument being made by Bustos, without naming Bustos. “The U.S. House of Representatives has been busy doing the people’s work, passing 387 bills to date addressing American’s greatest challenges,” she wrote. “Sadly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has killed them all, celebrating his role as a ‘Grim Reaper’ against efforts to decrease skyrocketing prescription drug prices, to reduce gun violence, and more.”

Readers unfamiliar with the internal debate would have noticed nothing significant about her opening, but insiders locked in the fight saw it clearly: Instead of rubber-stamping Trump’s trade deal to prove they can legislate, DeLauro argued, the party should simply point to its own record of passing legislation that McConnell has proudly obstructed.

Bustos has been blunt in speaking about USMCA to corporate allies at fundraisers, saying that labor unions and progressive Democrats “will have to get over it,” sources said. That posture, though, has put her at odds not only with progressives, but also with the Congressional Black Caucus. At a recent private meeting between CBC members and Bustos, focused largely on how the DCCC can do better when it comes to diversity and advocacy for people of color, CBC members raised Bustos’s aggressive push for an unrevised USMCA. Enflaming the left, they argued, gives energy to progressive primary challengers, who many of them are currently facing or worried about potentially facing. The message to House leadership, said one source close to the CBC, was: “We get what your focus is” — fortifying moderates in swing districts — ”but you have to take into consideration other folks who are getting primaried from the left.” The reticence of the CBC to embrace the leadership push for a quick vote is another indicator of the power of primary challenges to reshape the political terrain, even if most of them fail.

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, has been making a similar argument to Bustos’s, but less for protection of vulnerable members and more because he believes that the deal is good enough. Unions, he has argued internally, will just have to go along. He has proposed a divide-and-conquer strategy, by appending pension reform — a high priority of the Teamsters and a handful of other unions — to the deal in the hopes of splitting a few unions off from the labor movement and winning their support. That would allow House leaders to say that labor is divided on the question, so the party might as well vote yes.

The three areas in which the agreement faces the most resistance are in environmental protections, labor rights, and drug prices. Unions in particular are worried that there are no serious enforcement mechanisms that would require Mexico to raise labor standards and extend protections to union organizers. “I hear a lot of the frontliners want to see it passed,” texted one House Democrat nervous that the deal will get rammed through. “But if the final text doesn’t have real labor and environmental standards, AND WITH REAL ENFORCEMENT, then we shouldn’t even bring it up for a vote.”

The push from centrist Democrats began quietly in the summer, with 14 Democrats signing a letter to House leaders. “We write in support of continued negotiations through the upcoming recess, to ensure a vote on a bipartisan agreement by the end of this year. It is imperative that we reach a negotiated agreement early in the fall,” read the letter signed by Scott Peters, chair of the New Democrat Coalition, the corporate wing of the party, as well as Reps. Collin Allred, Kendra Horn, Haley Stevens, Anthony Brindisi, Joe Cunningham, Lizzie Fletcher, Ben McAdams, Josh Harder, Lou Correa, Sharice Davids, TJ Cox, Susie Lee, and Greg Stanton.

Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, and other centrist and conservative Democrats have continued insisting publicly on the need for quick action throughout the summer and fall. “We gotta make this happen,” insisted Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., at an event with Trump’s agriculture secretary.

There is currently a working group hashing out revisions to the pact, going back and forth with the White House’s top trade official, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Bustos’s staff has signaled to members of Congress concerned that she is trying to give the agreement away that Bustos supports the working group process, but the pressure from Bustos and the moderates to move quickly gives the White House the upper hand in negotiations where they’d otherwise be on the defensive. After all, if Democrats do nothing and win the White House, they would be able to negotiate a much stronger agreement.

“The Democrats and Congress seem to be making progress with the USTR. Now is not the time to do anything but continue to ensure what is passed by the House helps drive down drug prices in the United States,” said Jonathan Kimball of the trade group the Association for Accessible Medicines.

If Democrats do nothing and win the White House, they would be able to negotiate a much stronger agreement.

The trade group, which represents generic drug companies, is pushing against big pharma over provisions that would extend and expand drug company monopolies on patented drugs, blocking cheaper generics from the market. The treaty also expands the definition of what makes a biologic drug, which would put many more medicines off limits to generics for a longer stretch of time, keeping prices high. The treaty would block Congress from doing anything significant legislatively to lower drug prices, even as Democrats ran their 2018 campaign significantly on a promise to lower drug prices.

Unions, meanwhile, are pushing to strengthen provisions that would push Mexico to enact and enforce labor reform and raise wages for Mexican workers, which would make it easier for American workers to compete. Labor officials note that Mexico has neglected to fund its stated commitment to labor reform, and Neal recently traveled to Mexico to try to extract concessions from the Mexican government on enforceability. He came away with a letter of assurance from the Mexican president, which unions have dismissed as unserious.

The Sierra Club has been weighing in on the agreement for the last three years, Ben Beachy told The Intercept, and opposes it in its current form. He directs the group’s “A Living Economy” initiative, which advocates for green economic policy. “The deal as it stands is a pro-polluter deal any way you slice it,” Beachy said. “It not only fails to mention climate change, but would actively contribute to the climate crisis. Trump’s NAFTA 2.0 would perpetuate NAFTA’s outsourcing of pollution and jobs while giving new handouts to fossil fuel corporations.” The group has put out numerous statements regarding concerns that the current deal lacks binding environmental standards, and recently signed a letter along with 110 members of Congress calling for the new deal to address the climate crisis in a meaningful way.

And though Bustos is working in their name, not all front-line Democrats are united on putting through the deal. “We shouldn’t just ram anything through,” said one. “If we don’t get it right, we never get it back.”

Update: October 29, 2019, 11:20 a.m.
This story was updated to include additional comments from Bustos.

Update: October 29, 2019, 10:00 p.m.
After publication, Rep. DeLauro sent the following statement: “Congresswoman Bustos stands up for workers and the environment when it comes to the ongoing NAFTA renegotiation. She knows that Democrats on Speaker Pelosi’s Trade Working Group like myself are working to remove giveaways to pharmaceutical companies that will lock in high prescription drug prices. She also knows strong, enforceable labor and environmental protections must be included in the deal in order to stop outsourcing of American jobs. She is a strong ally in this fight.”


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