But while congressional Democrats are wondering if they want to support a strengthened regional trade pact pushed by President Donald Trump, they are focusing on a new point of contention: the price of drugs.
They argue that the new deal would force Americans to pay more for prescription drugs, and their argument has clouded prospects for one of the causes of Trump's signature.
The president's proposed replacement for the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement aims to win Democrats by encouraging factories to hire and expand in the United States. However, the pact would also give pharmaceutical companies 10 years of cheaper protection against competition in a category of expensive drugs, biological products, made from living cells.
Protected from competition, warn critics, drug manufacturers could charge exorbitant prices for organic products.
"It's an outrageous gift for Big Pharma," said representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, in an interview. "The government guarantees at least 10 years of commercial exclusivity for biological medicine.It is a monopoly.It is a bad policy."
The objections of DeLauro and other Democrats suddenly have greater power. The need to reduce high drug prices has become a rallying cry for voters of all political stripes. Trump himself has joined the outcry. The redeveloped trade agreement with North America must be approved by both houses of Congress, and Democrats have just regained control of the House.
Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, the new Chair of the House of Commons Subcommittee on Ways and Means Trade, told the Associated Press that "I do not honestly think that it is happening from my subcommittee on trade "with the provision on organic products intact.
"Organic products are among the most expensive drugs on the planet," Blumenauer said.
Nevertheless, the policies of NAFTA 2.0 are delicate for the Democrats and are not necessarily winners for them.
The original NAFTA, which came into force in 1994, eliminated most of the trade barriers separating the United States, Canada and Mexico. Like Trump, many Democrats have blamed NAFTA for encouraging American factories to abandon the United States to take advantage of Mexican low-wage labor, and then return duty-free goods to the United States. United States.
After long vilifying NAFTA, Trump demanded a new deal – a much more favorable deal for the United States and its workers. For more than a year, his main negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, has spoken with Canada and Mexico. Lighthizer has managed to include provisions in the new pact to attract Democrats and their allies to the unions. For example, 40% of the cars will eventually need to be manufactured in countries that pay at least $ 16 an hour to auto workers, that is to say in the United States and Canada. , and not Mexico, to qualify for duty-free treatment.
The new agreement also obliges Mexico to encourage independent unions to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions.
At the end of last year, the three countries signed their revised agreement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But this will only take effect when their three legislatures have approved it. Meanwhile, the old NAFTA remains in place.
The question now is this: are the Democrats ready to support an agreement that addresses some of their main objections to NAFTA and give Trump a political victory? Some Democrats have praised the new provisions that deal with auto wages, although many say that they need to be strengthened before voting for the USMCA.
The protection of pharmaceutical companies is another matter. Many Democrats had protested even when the Obama administration had negotiated for eight years a protection of organic products – against cheap imitating competitors called "biosimilars" – as part of a trade pact between 12 Pacific Rim countries, called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Trump dropped the TPP in his first week in office. But the pharmaceutical industry is a powerful lobby in Washington, and Trump's negotiators have insisted that US organic products be protected in the new North American Free Trade Agreement. They ended up giving pharmaceutical companies two more years of protection in the pact.
Among the leading biologics are the anti-inflammatory drug Humira, the cancer fighter Rituxan and Enbrel, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
The administration and pharmaceutical companies argue that organic manufacturers need time to take advantage of their creations before the advent of biosimilars, released from the cost of drug research and development. Otherwise, brand-name drug companies would have little incentive to invest in the development of new drugs.
They point out that a 2015 law allowing presidents to negotiate trade agreements obliges US authorities to push other countries to adopt US-style intellectual property protection measures, such as biopharmaceuticals. (The same law, somewhat contradictory, requires US negotiators to "promote access to medicines").
Supporters also note that existing US legislation gives organic manufacturers 12 years of protection. Thus, the new pact would not change the status quo in the United States, but would force Mexico to extend the monopoly of organic products from the age of five and Canada from the age of eight. In fact, proponents of the organic monopoly say the deal could lead to lower prices in the US, as pharmaceutical companies would no longer be under pressure to charge Americans more to offset lower prices in Canada. and Mexico.
Critics say that expanding the monopoly of organic products under a trade treaty would prevent the United States from reducing the duration, for example, of the seven years proposed by the Obama administration.
"By including 10 years in a treaty, we are sticking to a higher level of monopolistic protection for drugs that already bring in billions of dollars a year," said Jeffrey Francer, General Counsel for the Association for Accessible Medicines. , which represents generic drug companies. "The only way for Congress to change that is to go back to the treaty … does the US want to violate its own treaty?"
For Democrats, rising drug prices announce it as a powerful political argument against the approval of the new North American trade deal struck by the president. In December, Stanley Greenberg, a leading pollster and Democratic strategist, led focus groups in Michigan and Wisconsin with Trump voters not affiliated with the Republican Party. Some had already voted for Barack Obama. Others have qualified as independent politicians. These are the voters that Democrats hope to attract in 2020.
Greenberg said he was "shocked" by the intensity of his hostility towards pharmaceutical companies – and by the thought that a trade pact would protect these companies from competition.
"It was like throwing a bomb in the focus group," said Greenberg, married to DeLauro. He said the consensus of the voters was essentially: "The president was supposed to renegotiate (NAFTA) for it to work for American workers, but these lobbyists have to work behind the scenes" to sneak into 39, special interest.
This perception gives Democrats a reason to reject the new deal in the run-up to the 2020 elections.
"Democrats do not have an incentive to do that," said Philip Levy, a senior official with the Chicago Global Affairs Council and an economist at the White House under George W. Bush's presidency. "Before you know it, the presidential election season is going to open."
The US trade rules are intended to force Congress to give a positive or indirect vote to trade agreements. Nevertheless, there are ways to get around these restrictions. Congressional Democrats could, for example, urge the administration to negotiate so-called cover letters with Canada and Mexico to address their concerns. President Bill Clinton did this with the original NAFTA.
"Lighthizer and his team are very creative," said Blumenauer, chair of the House's trade subcommittee. "It's something that can be manipulated."
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