WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jeff Merkley faced a difficult vote Tuesday as he joined colleagues on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to advance the bill that would implement President Donald Trump's new trade deal.
The Oregon Democrat said the pact does not go far enough to protect the environment and address the urgency of climate change. He lamented what he called problematic provisions, including "special protections" for fossil fuel companies. But, he approved of its labor protections and voted in favor of advancing the deal.
As the bill that would make the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement law makes its way through different Senate committees, Democrats appear to be grappling with a difficult choice: voting for a deal that falls short of the environmental protections they want, but perhaps offers the most concessions they could have extracted in a Republican-led trade pact.
On Tuesday, Democrats on the environment panel committee broke with environmental groups and joined with their GOP colleagues to vote 16-4 to advance the bill. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., voted against moving the deal forward.
"Every major environmental organization is in opposition to this treaty and they have a list of reasons why," Merkley said after the vote. "We should have heard from them and considered their points of view."
The Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and Natural Resources Defense Council sent a letter in December to lawmakers urging them to reject the terms of the USMCA because it "fails to meet the baseline standards for environmental and climate protection that the environmental community has consistently called for."
The deal, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, contains a number of environmental provisions and Democrats -- even those who opposed it -- said it's a significant improvement over its predecessor.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the bill easily wins the record as most improved on environmental matters, but it wins the 'most improved' award off the baseline of terrible, horrible and no good, which has been the history of these trade agreements under Democratic and Republican administrations alike," Whitehouse said Tuesday.
He also voted against the bill at the Finance Committee last week.
"We're now at a point where I don't believe improvement is the measure; you're either reaching a measure that will protect us or you're not, and if you're not, then I can't vote for it," he said, citing recent data showing historically high levels of Earth-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.