Republicans were quick to warn President Donald Trump not to follow through on his bombastic threats to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) after the fourth round of negotiations to modernize the pact concluded Tuesday.
“Withdrawing would be a disaster,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Independent Journal Review on Tuesday afternoon.
America's top trading partners, Canada and Mexico, roundly rejected the Trump administration's hardline, protectionist demands during the latest round of negotiations for a revamped NAFTA. Those included a sunset clause that would force a renegotiation of the agreement every five years, a dramatic reduction in the trade deficit between the United States and Mexico, and harsh automobile manufacturing requirements.
But the United States's northern and southern neighbors pledged to remain in the talks, which were initially scheduled to continue through December but will now last through March of next year, according to a trilateral statement released at the conclusion of the fourth round.
That leaves the ball in President Donald Trump's court, and that's dangerous territory for Republican lawmakers — especially those from Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic manufacturing states that have benefited from the seminal trade deal.
“It'd be devastating for Pennsylvania and the country,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) told IJR. He went on to list the benefits of the agreement, pointing to thousands of jobs in his state that depend on exporting goods to Canada and Mexico as well as the lower prices American consumers pay for foreign goods that come as a result of international trade.
“So I disagree with much of what the administration is trying to do here,” Toomey said. “The agreement is actually working out quite well.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) warned that if Trump were to remove the United States from the agreement, “it would hurt a lot of Ohio manufacturers and agriculture interests because 25 percent of our manufacturing jobs are export jobs, and Canada is the biggest market. Mexico is number two.” He added that he believes Trump knows that.
Portman also was quick to say he has faith in U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who, he said, “understands the importance of the agreement, so I don't think that will happen.”
Trump threatened dissolving NAFTA frequently throughout his presidential campaign — especially when campaigning in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania — even though it was widely perceived as a bluff.
Portman, Toomey, and many of their colleagues are still taking it that way.
But earlier this year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had to talk Trump out of a NAFTA termination by showing a map of the Americans who would be hurt most by ending the deal and highlighting the noticeable overlap between those locations and the places that voted overwhelmingly for him in the 2016 election.
According to the Chamber of Commerce, 14 million American jobs are supported by trade with Canada and Mexico, and 5 million of those jobs depend heavily on NAFTA.
And take Trump's comments at a rally in August: “I don't think we can make a deal. I think we'll probably end up terminating NAFTA at some point.”
Just last week, Trump casually said at a joint press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that withdrawing from the trade agreement was still on the table.
If Trump were to follow through on his over-the-top rhetoric and scrap the deal, Toomey hopes Congress would respond in kind.
“I don't know that it's going to come to that. I hope it doesn't,” he added.
Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who represents North Dakota, which Trump won in 2016 with 63 percent of the vote, said she supported the Trump administration's priority to modernize the agreement. She, too, treated the idea of terminating the agreement harshly.
“NAFTA is absolutely critical to the future of my state, and I also think to the future of this country,” Heitkamp told IJR. "I applaud the administration for wanting to update the agreement and for raising these questions, but to unilaterally pull out of NAFTA would be a very wrong decision.”
Republican leaders echoed that: “It's really important to embrace NAFTA,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters. He also cited Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross's pledge to “do no harm” in modernizing the trade agreement.
Likewise, Senate Republican Conference Chair John Thune (R-S.D.) named his first priority: “I just want to make sure they do no harm.”
“We're really concerned about the impact on agriculture,” he explained. "Canada and Mexico are our two largest trading partners, and there's a lot at stake for us.
“If they can negotiate a better deal, great. But the bottom line for us is do no harm,” Thune said.
While legal experts disagree about whether Trump has the authority to unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA, the White House believes he does. Members of Congress could challenge the decision in court, it may require congressional approval, or the withdrawal might only apply to certain provisions of the agreement, but the legal uncertainty wouldn't stop Trump from trying to nix the agreement via executive order.
Article 2205 of NAFTA requires six-month notice before withdrawal from the pact.