LAREDO, Texas — As Rep. Henry Cuellar tried to watch a Texas Longhorns football game on a recent Saturday evening , he kept getting interrupted by his ringing phone. He jumped on and off calls with his staff, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, and the Mexican Embassy. All were to talk about the new North American trade pact.
For Cuellar, that’s all part of the job as one of the biggest champions for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement on Capitol Hill.
“I’m ready to go now. For me, it’s an easy vote,” Cuellar said in a recent interview in his law office just one mile from the U.S.-Mexico border. “I represent my district and here, trade is No. 1.”
As a cheerleader for USMCA, he courts skeptical Democrats and keeps track of who can be persuaded to support the pact. Other times, he compares notes with some of the big business groups pushing for USMCA passage, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Or, he works with high-level Mexican officials in an effort to soothe concerns on the American side.
The Texas Democrat has been a steadfast supporter from Day 1 for the USMCA — a rarity among Democrats. That has positioned him as an important back channel in Washington pushing to get the NAFTA replacement deal passed in Congress. The House Democratic majority has largely withheld judgment on the USMCA until they see how the Trump administration addresses their top concerns.
Cuellar’s support for USMCA goes back to his roots in Laredo, a border town with about 260,000 residents. On a busy day, more than 7,000 trucks filled with products ranging from tires to ice cream cross from Mexico into Texas through the World Trade International Bridge here.
That trade flow — which amounts to more than $120 billion in U.S.-Mexico cross-border trade each year — is why Cuellar has long positioned himself as one of the friendliest of the trade-friendly Democrats in Washington.
“You can see why it’s an easy decision for me,” he said after a POLITICO reporter toured the World Trade International Bridge facilities with Customs and Border Protection officials.
“If I went against NAFTA, look at the thousands of jobs — in trucking, logistics, customs brokerage, warehousing — that would be impacted,” he added.
Deep-diving to win over lawmakers
Reservations over President Donald Trump’s signature deal even extends to many border-state Democrats (although they’re quick to tout the importance of trade with Mexico and Canada).
More significant, several House Democrats are in the throes of negotiations with the Trump administration to work out their concerns over the deal’s enforcement, labor and environmental standards and drug pricing provisions. Many are still upset over promises they feel were not kept in the original NAFTA.
Cuellar himself is not part of the nine-member working group tasked by Pelosi to secure changes to the USMCA, but he has tried to smooth over Democrats’ concerns one-by-one.
“I have a tally on most Democrats. I have an idea of who’s going to be a yes, most likely a no, and then a large group that are mostly new, but I hear as a possibility of a yes,” he said.
Cuellar won’t share his list, but he’s happy to describe his effort. He regularly seeks out individual lawmakers to explain why they should back the deal — whether it‘s because they represent an agriculture-heavy district or because Mexico’s landmark labor reforms dovetails with their pro-union stance.
He also pushes to promote close U.S.-Mexico ties as part of his role on the U.S.-Mexico Interparliamentary Group, which Pelosi tapped him to chair earlier this year.
In April, he led a delegation of senior staff from the House Ways and Means Committee, Pelosi’s office and AFL-CIO to Mexico City to discuss those labor commitments and other matters with USMCA with Mexican lawmakers and government officials.
In August, Cuellar, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, returned to Mexico with Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady (R-Texas) to talk about the pact with high-level Mexican officials.
The Yucatan Times Newsroom with information from Politico.com