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U.S. Senate passes U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal, a Trump priority

Last Updated Jan 16, 2020 at 12:03 pm EDT

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Mexico President Enrique Pena Neto, left, as Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, looks on after participating in the USMCA signing ceremony, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a new North American trade agreement Thursday that rewrites the rules of trade with Canada and Mexico and gives President Donald Trump a major policy win before senators turn their full attention to his impeachment trial.

The vote was 89-10.

The measure goes to Trump for his signature. It would replace the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, which tore down most trade barriers and triggered a surge in trade. But Trump and other critics blamed that pact for encouraging U.S. companies to move their manufacturing plants south of the border to take advantage of low-wage Mexican labourers.

Passage of the trade bill came one day after Trump signed a new trade agreement with China, easing trade tensions between the economic powers.

“Quite a week of substantive accomplishments for the nation, for the president and for our international trade,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., shortly before the vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada deal.

The House has already overwhelmingly approved the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described the pact as a “major win for the Trump administration, a major win for those of us who are already ready to move past this season of toxic political noise.”

Trump blamed the current trade pact with Canada and Mexico, the North American Free Trade Agreement, for sending millions of manufacturing jobs to low-wage plants south of the U.S. border. His administration secured changes that aim to have more cars produced where workers earn an average of at least $16 an hour. It also secured changes that require Mexico to change its laws to make it easier for workers to form independent unions, which should improve worker conditions and wages and reduce the incentive for U.S. companies to relocate their plants.

While the administration completed its negotiations with Canada and Mexico more than a year ago, Democrats in the House insisted on changes to the pact that they say make it more likely Mexico will follow through on its commitments. As part of those negotiations, the administration agreed to drop a provision that offered expensive biologic drugs – made from living cells – 10 years of protection from cheaper knockoff competition.

Republicans and the president have complained about how long it took to complete the negotiations, but the talks resulted in a rare mix of support for USMCA. The AFL-CIO, an association of trade unions, endorsed the measure along with scores of business and farm groups. The biggest holdouts are environmental groups, which continue to oppose the measure because it doesn’t address climate change. Indeed, they contend the agreement would contribute to rising temperatures.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., marveled Wednesday at how leaders of organized labour and farm groups in his state appeared together to support the pact.

“They both agree that this USMCA trade agreement is a step forward, an improvement over the original NAFTA,” Durbin said. “I think we’ve added to this process by making it truly bipartisan.”