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GOP Border Senator Launches Pro-NAFTA Campaign

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WASHINGTON – Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) on Wednesday launched a pro-NAFTA campaign, soliciting input from residents in his state who have been positively impacted by the 23-year-old trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.

“If you’re an Arizonan who runs a family business, farms a field, works at a Fortune 500 company or even shops at the grocery store, odds are NAFTA’s had a positive economic impact on your life,” Flake said Wednesday in announcing his NAFTA4AZ initiative. “While Arizona has much to gain from modernizing and strengthening NAFTA, it is important that the administration hears from Arizonans on cross-border trade’s critical role in supporting jobs, opportunity, and economic growth in our state.”

President Trump during his bid for the White House vowed to dismantle NAFTA, calling it the worst deal in trade history. The administration on May 18 sent a letter to Congress notifying lawmakers that it plans to renegotiate the trade deal.

Mexican officials, in particular, have been eagerly awaiting signals from the White House on how it plans to approach re-negotiation, with Mexico’s Ambassador Gerónimo Gutiérrez saying the U.S.-Mexico relationship is at a critical juncture.

The administration’s letter to congressional leaders states that negotiations will begin no sooner than 90 days from the date of the document, allowing for meetings to start Aug. 16 at the earliest. Compared to Trump’s campaign rhetoric on the trade deal, the letter includes much softer language, stating intentions to “modernize” NAFTA and support higher-paying jobs and economic growth in the U.S.

“We note that NAFTA was negotiated 25 years ago, and while our economy and businesses changed considerably over that period, NAFTA has not,” the letter reads.

Less than a week after the letter’s submission, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer filed an official request for comment on negotiation objectives “regarding modernization” of NAFTA. The department set a comment deadline for June 12, allowing 20 days for public input.

Arizona is a major agricultural hub, producing fruit, vegetables and cotton, and Mexico serves as the No. 1 export customer for the Grand Canyon State. Along with launching NAFTA4AZ, Flake’s office sent letters to Arizona business owners seeking participation in the campaign. According to the Republican lawmaker, Mexican trade in Arizona supports 100,000 jobs, and state retailers register about $8 million a day from Mexican customers.

“When it comes to creating jobs in our state and growing Arizona’s economy, vibrant cross-border trade is critical,” Flake said.

Ambassador Darci Vetter, former chief agricultural negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, said in an interview Thursday that it will be interesting to see how the administration and Congress approach this next 90 days.

“Which of those objectives does the administration and Congress feel are not being met and need improvement, and what kind of signal will they send before they start renegotiating with Mexico and Canada?” Vetter said.

The negotiation structure itself will help lead to the outcome, she said, noting that it will be important to see what issues are grouped for discussion and which issues are taken off the table entirely. The administration’s May 18 letter states that modernization will include provisions for “intellectual property rights, regulatory practices, state-owned enterprises, services, customs procedures, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, labor, environment, and small and medium enterprises.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has said that Americans should not expect the NAFTA re-negotiation to be a “silver bullet” in solving unemployment and other issues in America. Those critical of the agreement have blamed NAFTA for tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs lost in the U.S. since the deal was signed in 1994.