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EXCLUSIVE: Democrats not looking to reopen CUSMA but want labour standard guarantees, Neal says

Exclusive: U.S. Chairman Richard Neal says Democrats don’t want to reopen CUSMA
In an exclusive scrum with Global News, senior Democrat Richard Neal says it's a "mischaracterization" to suggest his party wants to reopen the new NAFTA deal and that its focus is on labour protections for workers.

Democrats are not looking to reopen the CUSMA trade deal and believe they are “very close” to being able to ratify it, says top Democrat Richard Neal.

But the chairman of the powerful U.S. House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee said in an exclusive scrum with Global News that they need guarantees that the labour standards in the deal will be enforced, and that will be the focus of his Wednesday meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

READ MORE: One focus of the Richard Neal CUSMA meeting will be easing Democrat concerns, sources say

“I think what we’re going to prioritize here is clearly the issue of labour enforcement, and we think that on USMCA, we’re very close but we need some guarantees as it relates not just to Canada but also their help as it relates to Mexico,” he told Global News as he arrived on Parliament Hill for the meeting.

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“We think that we want a series of guarantees. They’re pretty basic, and we’ve reached accord on many of these issues but we’ve also decided on the Ways and Means Committee with the working group that nothing is settled until everything is settled.”

Neal was greeted in Ottawa by Trudeau and Freeland, who have both said Canada will move in lockstep with the U.S. on ratification of the deal.

The new NAFTA was signed in November 2018, but so far, Mexico is the only party to have ratified it.

READ MORE: Nearly a year after CUSMA signing, businesses have mixed emotions on what’s to come

The U.S. midterm elections handed the balance of power in the House of Representatives to the Democrats, who have been raising concerns about whether the deal is progressive enough and whether it adequately enforces protections for workers, particularly in Mexico.

The enforcement of those labour protections was the topic of a July meeting between Employment Minister Patty Hajdu and her Mexican counterpart in Mexico City, and a government source told Global News she will be taking part in the meeting with Neal because of her experience working to liaise with the Mexicans on how they plan to enforce those labour standards, including protections for unions.

But that’s raised questions about whether the Democrats are trying to reopen the deal, something Neal said is not the case.

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“I don’t think you should say it’s a reopening of it because I think that would be to mischaracterize it,” Neal explained.

“I think instead, we’re looking for the firmness and the guarantees that have already been suggested.”

If new NAFTA not ratified before 2020, all bets of ratification are off: Hyder
If new NAFTA not ratified before 2020, all bets of ratification are off: Hyder

Trudeau has emphasized repeatedly that his government worked to get elements it considers progressive such as environmental and labour protections included in the deal and a source told Global News on Tuesday that while he did not technically need to greet Neal given Neal’s point person would normally be Freeland, he would do so in order to stress the importance he places on getting the deal ratified.

His government had tabled a bill to ratify the deal before the House of Commons rose for the summer and up until the writ dropped, there was a chance he could recall MPs to pass that bill and ratify the deal if there was a breakthrough south of the border.

That did not happen though and the bill is now dead.

In order to ratify the deal, Trudeau would need to present a new bill to the House of Commons whenever it is recalled.

And while he has said he will name a cabinet on Nov. 20, Trudeau has given no indication yet of whether he will recall MPs before the winter break.

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Traditionally, that runs from the middle of December until the end of January.

Democratic primaries begin in February 2020 though, which means if the deal is not ratified before the end of the year then leaders would face trying to get it done during a heightened environment of partisan and internal party tensions in the U.S. as it enters its presidential election year.

At this point, it’s not clear what may have been accomplished in the meeting.

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a brief readout Wednesday afternoon that offered little detail.

“The Prime Minister and the U.S. Representatives reaffirmed the strength of the Canada-United States partnership, and discussed progress being made towards the ratification of the new North American Free Trade Agreement and Canada’s efforts to support labour reforms in Mexico,” it reads.

“They agreed on the importance of continued strong relations for the benefit of people, jobs, and businesses on both sides of the border.”