Prime Minister Stephen Harper met Thursday with some of the most powerful politicians in the United States, defending Canadian interests as America’s single largest trading partner.
Harper took the unusual step of paying a visit to the majestic Capitol building to meet with Democrat Nancy Pelosi, Republican John Boehner and other influential lawmakers. The trek came a day after he spent more than an hour in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama.
Publicly, his Capitol Hill visit was all platitudes: The U.S. as “far and away our best friend in the world; we are so lucky to have you as a neighbour.”
The verbal affection was returned.
“Canada and the United States, as you know, are the closest of friends and we value that friendship enormously in the Congress of the United States,” Pelosi, the House speaker, told a brief news conference.
Boehner, the House minority leader, told Harper: “We enjoy a great friendship with the Canadian people, but like any relationship, it requires communication and discussion, and so I’m glad that you’re here.”
Behind closed doors, however, the Prime Minister’s Office said Harper and a coterie of cabinet ministers were forcefully pressing their points on the so-called Buy American provisions that Congress inserted into Obama’s US$787-billion economic stimulus package earlier this year.
They sat down with several U.S. senators that also included Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.
Harper “emphasized the strength of the bilateral relationship between Canada and the United States” and took pains to register Canada’s opposition to “Buy American,” spokesman Dmitri Soudas said in a statement.
“The Prime Minister took the opportunity to raise the continued importance to fight protectionism by promoting open and free trade … and expressed the importance of the role that the American Senate can play in supporting a resolution.”
The group also discussed climate change and energy security, border management and security, as well as “international security issues such as Afghanistan,” Soudas said.
There is reportedly little appetite among those in Congress to revisit “Buy American,” and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are currently preoccupied with something more pressing: the health-care reform battle.
But David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Harper’s visit is nonetheless a vital one.
Congress, after all, is where much of the true power resides in Washington. Obama himself has been actively appealing for months to lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, for support for his health-care overhaul.
That’s something Harper clearly understands, said Biette.
“Sure it’s symbolic, but it’s important,” he said.
“The prime minister knows how busy they are here, but it’s not like Pelosi and Reid are only thinking about health care. When a head of a foreign government comes along, they will listen to him, and it will register.”
On Wednesday, Obama acknowledged that Canada had “legitimate concerns” about “Buy American,” but also suggested the threat was being overblown by America’s trading partners.
But Harper stressed the provisions remain a genuine concern to Canadians.
“These are important irritants. They are having some real impacts,” Harper said.
“I would emphasize that it is critical, at a time where we’re trying to see a recovery in the global economy, where forces of protectionism are a very significant threat, that we continue to demonstrate to the world that Canada and the United States can manage their trade relations in a way that’s extremely positive and a model for other countries.”
Following his meetings in Washington, Harper was scheduled to travel to New York for a speech to the Canadian American Business Council.