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Sen. Rob Portman Weighs In On U.S. Trade Negotiations With Mexico, Other Countries

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Congress has been a split screen this week with partisan fighting over impeachment and partisan cooperation on a trade deal with the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It's expected to pass the House before the end of the year and go to the Senate after the holidays. Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, supports the deal. He served as U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, and he joins us now.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROB PORTMAN: Ari, good to be back on with you.

SHAPIRO: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted yesterday that Democrats achieved something that is, quote, "infinitely better for American workers" than what the Trump administration had originally proposed. What is your view of the additions that Democrats insisted on? Do you think the administration gave away too much to get Democrats' and labor support?

PORTMAN: No, I don't, because it's the same basic agreement. Really, for a year, we've been talking about one primary issue, and that is how to make sure that the labor standards that are in the new agreement are enforceable. And at the end of the day, we came up with a compromise, which I think makes sense, which allows the United States to have a better way to approach the violations in Mexico through an arbitration process, which, ultimately, I think will affect Mexico only, not so much us and not so much Canada. And I think it's fine. And it also gives us an opportunity to be sure we're leveling the playing field a little bit more, vis-a-vis Mexico.

SHAPIRO: We often think of trade agreements as knocking down trade barriers. And this does a little of that, like opening up a little of the Canadian dairy market. But most of the changes from NAFTA are to put up protections for American workers, like requiring that a certain amount of content be built in an American plant. Do you think it's still accurate to call this a free trade agreement?

PORTMAN: Absolutely, because it is a trade opening agreement. And the labor part of it is one thing we just talked about. But also, with regard to the 62.5% versus the 75% content coming from countries, you know, within the agreement, I think that makes sense. And I don't think it is leading to more protectionism. I think, in fact, what it says is if you're going to have a free trade agreement with the United States, you know, you will get certain benefits because it'll be lower tariffs on both sides.

So as an example, if you're making a vehicle in Mexico or the U.S. or Canada now, instead of being able to take a substantial part of the parts from, let's say, China or Japan, you now would want to get them from one of these other two countries to be able to take advantage of the lower tariffs. In other words, it doesn't allow other countries to come in and essentially to freeload on the agreement. This means that the next time we reach out - and we are reaching out, as you know, to the U.K. and to Japan and the EU generally for trade agreements - this makes an agreement with the U.S., you know, more compelling.

SHAPIRO: Well, speaking of...

PORTMAN: So I think it'll help.

SHAPIRO: Speaking of other countries, a big trade issue the U.S. has not resolved is with China. And this weekend, $160 billion more in Chinese imports are going to be subjected to new tariffs, including a lot of popular consumer items like laptops and cellphones. These tariffs were pushed off from September so Christmas shopping wouldn't take a hit. How concerned are you about this?

PORTMAN: I'm concerned about it. I'm hopeful that it can be at least delayed because, as you know, there have been some positive signs just in the last 24 hours. China has agreed to buy more of our products, soybeans in particular, which is nice for Ohio. But I guess more importantly is - I think there is a good faith effort that's being undertaken by the same person, U.S. trade rep Bob Lighthizer, with China, as he did with Nancy Pelosi over the last year, to come up with an agreement on USMCA.

So I think, actually, USMCA's success helps to build up a more likely successful negotiation with China. First, it strengthens our economy, which gives us leverage. But second, it shows that America can get something done here. And you know, it is possible for us to get to yes. One of the things that China has been saying, as you know, is not just vis-a-vis us, but with other countries around the world, the United States has a tough time getting to yes in a trade agreement. Well, here we have - and my - I hope that we can do that with China just in the next few days, at least on phase one, to avoid those tariffs.

SHAPIRO: Just in our last minute, I want to ask - because you do co-chair the Senate Ukraine caucus. You've said a number of times you don't see evidence the president has done anything that would rise to the level of impeachment. Now that you've heard testimony in the House, if this does move to a Senate trial in the new year, as is expected, what's the biggest question that you still need answered?

PORTMAN: Well, you know, I don't see the evidence that has been compiled so far in the House. I have said consistently after encouraging the release of the transcripts that some of the president's actions were not appropriate. But based on what's been presented, nothing rise to the level of saying we're going to overturn the results of an election, especially...

SHAPIRO: Any question that you still want answered, though?

PORTMAN: In terms of a question I'd like answered from the administration...

SHAPIRO: About the president's activities, vis-a-vis Ukraine.

PORTMAN: Well, yeah. I mean, I - as the head of the Ukraine caucus, as you said, or the co-chair of it, and someone who pushed hard for that funding to go, I want to be sure that we continue to provide that funding. And we just passed that in the national defense bill that we agreed to just yesterday. So that's good news. And I - we need to continue to support Ukraine as they are turning to the West.

SHAPIRO: Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, thank you.

PORTMAN: Thanks, Ari. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.