Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, participated in a panel discussion in Pharr, Texas, on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019
on trade talks. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated.

PHARR, Texas (Border Report) — Appearing on a panel discussion about trade Friday, two powerful Texas lawmakers expressed optimism that Congress will pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said he has spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and she assured him that she will bring USMCA — NAFTA’s replacement — to a vote in the House in the fall.

At the G20 Summit in November 2018, President Donald Trump and leaders from Mexico and Canada signed the USMCA to replace the North American Free Trade, which had been in existence among the three countries for 24 years.

But Congress has not yet ratified the trade measure, because some lawmakers have expressed concerns regarding labor reform, enforcement of the policies, pharmaceuticals and effects on the environment.

“I’ve asked Pelosi in private. We are going to vote,” Cuellar told a crowd of about 1,000 people at the Pharr Events Center in South Texas during a lunchtime panel discussion. “She said she will put it.”

Pelosi has assigned nine lawmakers to a special committee to study the measure. She has called a Sept. 3 conference with the Democratic caucus to update them, Cuellar told Border Report late Friday.

Texas Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., far left, poses with a group of businessmen and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, as Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, far right, talks with constituents on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, following a panel discussion in Pharr, Texas, by Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar on the USMCA trade agreement. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

“I feel very comfortable that we will have a vote and pass it. I’ve counted the votes on the Democratic side,” Cuellar said during his panel discussion.

That was welcome news to many in the room full of influential South Texas leaders, including mayors, city commissioners and business owners, as well as Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez; Democratic state Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio Jr.; and Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company and founding member of the Border Trade Alliance.

“What we are seeing is a really large opportunity with USMCA, but one of the problems is because we have not gotten ratification through Congress, everything is frozen,” said Keith Patridge, president and CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation.

Because we have not gotten ratification through Congress, everything is frozen.”

Keith Patridge, president and CEO of McAllen EDC
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, left, speaks on a trade panel discussion Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, in Pharr, Texas, with U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. Veronica Gonzales, of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, moderated the panel. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

“Trade has gotten a little bit of a black eye in our political discourse these days. People blame a lot of things on trade that it doesn’t deserve,” said Cornyn, insisting keeping an “eye on the ball and not get distracted by all the noise that exists in Washington, D.C., in particular on this topic.

“And I agree with Henry (Cuellar) that if they key it up in the house, which I heard him say they will do, and it passes, then it will pass the Senate,” said Cornyn, the former Senate Whip who said his primary job had been to “count votes” and he still does that religiously.

U.S. economics at stake

The United States exports $125 billion worth of goods to Mexico each year. Over 5 million American jobs depend on bi-national trade with Mexico; 8 million with Canada. And the economic prosperity of Texas depends on its ability to trade energy resources, Cornyn said.

Failing to pass a meaningful trade measure with these border country partners “would be unthinkable to me. I hope that’s not in the realm of possibility,” Cornyn said, adding quickly: “Right now NAFTA continues to be the law of the land until USMCA gets passed.”

Mexico has 45 trade agreements with other countries, Cuellar said adding “We’re not the only game in town.”

Cuellar said that China is aggressive and has been scoring trade opportunities in Latin America, particularly in Brazil and Argentina, as U.S. lawmakers stall on approving the USMCA plan.

NAFTA effect on South Texas

The Laredo trade district, which includes the Rio Grande Valley accounts for half of all trade with Mexico and the United States, said Salvador Contreras, an economist with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Keith Patridge is president and CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Since NAFTA began in 1994, trade has increased in this district from $47 billion to $317 billion per year, Contreras said. Unemployment rates in the region dropped from 20 percent in 1994 to 6.5 percent in 2018. Poverty has decreased from 36 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2017.

Patridge, of the McAllen EDC, urged everyone to write to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and let them know what’s at stake.

“Washington, D.C., is thousands of miles away and the people in Washington don’t know what’s going on down here and what’s good for the Rio Grande Valley,” Patridge said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at