2020 Democrats duke it out over USMCA as Senate prepares to vote

While none of the candidates appear entirely happy with the deal, most advocate for supporting it

Presidential hopefuls were at odds during the first Democratic debate of 2020 over whether they would support a renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, which is expected to come up for another key vote in Congress this week.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said the chamber is on track to pass what is known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (or USMCA). The deal will replace the original NAFTA agreement among the same trio of countries.

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However, two frontrunners in the Democratic Party – Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – disagree on whether they will vote for the agreement.

Sanders reiterated that he will not.

“We can do much better than a Trump-led trade deal,” Sanders said Tuesday on the debate stage in Iowa -- which goes to the polls in 20 days.  “This deal … will result in the continuation of a loss of hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs as a result of outsourcing. The heart and soul of our disastrous trade agreements … is that we have forced American workers to compete against people in Mexico, in China, elsewhere, who earn starvation wages – $1 or $2 an hour.”

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On the other hand, Warren said she would vote for the trade deal because while it is only a “modest improvement” over NAFTA, it will give some relief to people who have been negatively affected by trade wars – like farmers in Iowa “who are hurting.”

“I believe we accept that relief, we try to help the people who need help and we get up the next day and fight for a better trade deal,” Warren said. “I’m ready to have that fight but let’s help the people who need help right now.”

In response, Sanders said it is not so easy to put together new trade legislation, indicating accepting the USMCA will “set us back a number of years.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., answers a question Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar also said she supports the deal. She believes changes added by House Democrats – including better labor and environmental protections – have made the deal better.

“I think we need a big trading bloc with North America to take on China,” Klobuchar said.

Conceding it is "not perfect," former Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he also supports the deal. , though it is “not perfect.” Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden looked ahead and said there would be no trade agreement signed in his administration without environmentalists and labor representatives at the table.

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The USMCA, which encompasses more than $1.3 trillion worth of trade, was overwhelmingly passed by the House in December. If it receives Senate approval, it will be sent to Trump’s desk for his signature.

The USMCA grants U.S. farmers greater access to new markets, while strengthening rules of origin for auto parts. Democrats pushed for the addition of enhanced labor and environmental standards.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is expected to sign a Phase One trade agreement with China at the White House on Wednesday, easing tensions after more than a year of tit-for-tat tariff escalation.

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The Iowa caucuses begin on Feb. 3, making Tuesday’s debate the last before the first votes of the 2020 presidential campaign.