Sen. Portman: New steel tariffs make it harder to get NAFTA replaced

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio cautioned that steel and aluminum tariffs imposed last year by President Donald Trump on Canada and Mexico make it far more difficult for the administration to persuade Congress to approve a newly negotiated trade pact with the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

Portman, who along with five other Republican senators met Thursday at the White House with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, has expressed optimism that Congress eventually will approve the replacement for the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.

But Portman said as “part of passing” NAFTA’s replacement – called the United States, Mexico and Canada Agreement — “we must resolve the steel and aluminum tariffs currently in place against Canada and Mexico.”

“These tariffs were put in place using a national security trade remedy and these countries are our allies, not national security threats,” Portman said in a statement before the meeting.

Even though Portman said the new agreement “is a significant improvement over the existing NAFTA,” he appeared to side with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who bluntly wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week that the trade pact is “dead” unless Trump drops the tariffs.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly charged that NAFTA had led to the loss of millions of American manufacturing jobs. His administration joined with Mexico and Canada late last year to agree on a new trade pact.

The agreement, however, has run into intense opposition from congressional Democrats who contend it still lacks tough labor and environmental standards on Mexico.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, a longtime NAFTA critic, said he wants “to see us pass a new NAFTA that makes life better for Ohio workers. We’ve made a lot of progress,” but insisted the No. 1 priority “has to be stopping Ohio jobs from moving overseas and we can’t do that without strong tools to enforce labor standards.”

NAFTA essentially unified the North American automotive market and made it easier for Ohio to export goods to Mexico and Canada.

The Ohio Department of Development reported that last year, Ohio companies and farmers exported a record $54 billion worth of products, with nearly 39 percent of those goods going to Canada and 12.6 percent to Mexico, which is now the state’s third-largest trading partner.

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