- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Trump administration officially notified Congress on Thursday that it intends to renegotiate NAFTA, igniting a process that could lead to reshaping the face of trade in North America.

President Trump had said earlier this year that he had decided against canceling the North American Free Trade Agreement altogether, but would instead pursue rewrites.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. officially notified Congress that the renegotiation has now begun.

“With this letter, we intend to notify not just Congress, but all our trading partners, that free and fair trade is the new standard for U.S. trade deals,” he said. “Since the signing of NAFTA, we have seen our manufacturing industry decimated, factories shuttered and countless workers left jobless. President Trump is going to change that.”

The notice begins a 90-day waiting period during which there will be intensive negotiations between the administration and Congress to set parameters and objectives for a NAFTA rewrite.

The trade deal was negotiated by President George H.W. Bush, but was submitted to Congress by President Bill Clinton, who cajoled enough Democrats to join with Republicans to back it.

Analysts say the deal has been a boon for the U.S., Mexico and Canada — the three parties.

But some industries have suffered more than others, including U.S. textiles, which blamed their near-wipeout in the 1990s and 2000s on the deal.

The Mexican government said it “welcomes” the chance to look at the agreement again, and said it’s already begun its own internal consultations on how to revamp the agreement.

“The trilateral agreement has been of immense benefit to all parties. We look forward to a constructive process to increase our economic cooperation and integration in order to enhance our regional competitiveness,” the government said in a statement.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said her government is also in the midst of consultations.

“We are at an important juncture that offers us an opportunity to determine how we can best align NAFTA to new realities — and integrate progressive, free and fair approaches to trade and investment,” she said.

In the U.S., Congress has carved out a role for itself as the negotiations proceed.

Republican leaders on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees trade deals, said they were looking forward to a modern “update” of the agreement.

“There is no question that NAFTA has been tremendously successful for American workers, farmers and businesses,” said Committee Chairman Kevin Brady. “However, it is time to update and improve this 20-year-old agreement to ensure that NAFTA continues to open more markets for American manufactured goods, agricultural products and services, and that it better reflects our needs in the 21st century.”

Many members of Congress, particularly those along the U.S.-Mexico border, had feared Mr. Trump would try to cancel the agreement outright. They said renegotiation was the smarter path for all countries involved.

Mr. Trump has already canceled U.S. involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal negotiated by President Barack Obama that involved a dozen countries around the Pacific Rim.

But Democrats said Mr. Trump’s trade stance is incoherent, harking back to his vicious criticism of Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign for her work on the TPP and her husband’s ushering in of NAFTA.

The Democrats said Mr. Trump needs to provide more “clarity” on what he hopes to achieve in the renegotiation, and said his notification letter doesn’t give anywhere near enough details on how he’ll approach the bargaining table.

“For those of us who believe that U.S. trade policy — and NAFTA — needs fundamental reform, this notice is very disappointing,” said Rep. Richard E. Neal, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., the ranking Democrat on the trade subcommittee.

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