Texas Rep. Cuellar rallies House Democrats to support Trump’s trade deal

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is shown in his office on Capitol Hill during an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram April 9, 2019.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is shown in his office on Capitol Hill during an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram April 9, 2019. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar is taking the lead role in rounding up his Democratic colleagues to support President Donald Trump’s new North American free trade deal.

Cuellar told the Star-Telegram in an interview Tuesday that he plans to bring skeptical lawmakers to Mexico to meet with government officials later this month to discuss their progress on passing stricter labor laws that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is demanding they complete before the House votes on the agreement.

“They’re moving on this legislation,” Cuellar said of the Mexican government officials, who he counts as friends. But “there are some Democrats who have questions, what is Mexico going to do? So I’m trying to set up a trip and invite some of the members to go there so they can hear from them personally.”

Cuellar, a seven-term border-district congressman who has a long history of working closely with Texas’ business community, has already drawn fire from the left for his moderate positions. Justice Democrats, the liberal group that backed New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called for Cuellar to face a primary challenge in 2020.

Business groups consider the new trade deal, called the United States Mexico Canada Agreement, crucial to their ability to do business in Texas, where they estimate roughly $1.3 trillion in trade comes across the border with Mexico annually.

Another Texan, GOP Rep. Mike McCaul, is helping win GOP support for the revamped North America Free Trade Agreement, which would help Trump deliver on one of his top campaign promises.

But the deal faces a tough path on Congress. The Republican-controlled Senate is unhappy with the new tariffs Trump has imposed, while the Democratic-led House doesn’t think the deal includes enforcement mechanisms that are strong enough to bring Mexico’s labor laws up to speed.

“Mexico made some promises in NAFTA it didn’t keep,” House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer said of Democratic leadership’s hesitation on the deal. He added that most of the caucus believes the economic issues must be addressed before the House can vote on the deal.

Cuellar, the rare Democrat endorsed by the Texas Association of Business in 2018, is aggressively working to alleviate those concerns among his colleagues.

“I’ve had a couple dinners with people from Mexico, the secretaries, the undersecretaries on this, and my message to them is you better pass this labor agreement so you can get Democrats on board,” said Cuellar.

Cuellar dined with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Democratic lawmakers to discuss the issue Monday night. He is keeping a paper list of Democratic colleagues and whether they support the deal in his office on Capitol Hill.

He hasn’t named the Democrats who plan to join him in Mexico over the April recess, which begins next week.

Cuellar’s moves come as AFL-CIO Richard Trumka is headed to Capitol Hill Wednesday morning to speak with Democrats over breakfast. The AFL-CIO, which opposes the deal in its current form, did not respond to request for comment.

David Lightman from McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.