WASHINGTON—U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said he wants to reach a deal in coming weeks to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement, adding a sense of urgency to trilateral negotiations that have run for over eight months.
Lighthizer is scheduled to meet with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts May 7 after he returns from a trip to China. The three have been holding regular talks since August, and last week gathered in Washington for several days of negotiations.
"We're going to meet again on Monday, and we'll see if we can get a good agreement," Lighthizer said during a conference in Washington on May 1. "I'd like to get it done a week or two after that. If not, then you start having a problem."
That's because by law it could take the House and Senate months to ratify any changes to NAFTA. The U.S. holds congressional elections in November and a new Congress starts up in January. Waiting until then "changes the whole way you have to kind of construct the deal," he said.
Lighthizer said he's aiming for an agreement that will have broad support in the current Congress, with at least 65 percent of the Senate and House approving the deal. "It's my ambition that this not be a Republican vote," he said. "It's got to be a bipartisan vote. We want to have a big vote."
Mexico plans to respond to the latest U.S. proposals when ministers meet May 7, Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said on May 1.
Lighthizer's push to hammer out a deal could bump into a difficult reality, as the three countries still haven't agreed on thorny issues such as rules for car manufacturing in the region. President Trump has threatened to withdraw from NAFTA if he can't make changes to shrink America's trade deficit and revive manufacturing jobs.
Speaking earlier on Tuesday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross cautioned there's a risk NAFTA negotiations could drag on for months.
The three countries could reach a deal in the next few weeks, "or it will take until fall, and who knows what happens then," according to Ross, who is frequently engaged in the White House's decisions on trade. "As you move toward the middle of the year, the political calendar makes it difficult," he said at a conference in Los Angeles, citing Mexico's presidential vote in July.
But the pace of NAFTA negotiations has accelerated in the past few weeks. Canada's chief negotiator, Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, said in late April that talks were in an intensive stage, with technical teams working long hours and weekends to get a deal done.
Still, Trump has expressed little urgency to reach an agreement and said last week he wasn't sure a quick deal would be in America's interests.
Since then, Trump on Monday extended temporary exemptions for Canada and Mexico from U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum. Trump has said he would exclude both countries permanently if they agree to a NAFTA accord to his liking. The new exemption expires June 1.