U.S. hopes to launch NAFTA talks in just over 90 days: Ross

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Friday that he hopes to launch formal talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in a little over three months, setting in motion a campaign promise made by President Donald Trump.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross holds a news conference at the Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., U.S. March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

During his election campaign, Trump threatened to pull out of NAFTA, which he views as damaging to U.S. workers, unless it was renegotiated to his liking and reduced the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico.

Ross told reporters that “sometime in the next couple of weeks” he hopes to send a letter notifying Congress that the Trump administration intends to launch NAFTA negotiations in 90 days.

“That’s what triggers the beginnings of the formal process itself,” Ross said at a news conference with Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo.

A notification about NAFTA in the next two weeks would put the likely start of talks late June or early July.

Trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico has nearly quadrupled in goods since NAFTA took effect in 1994 to $1.1 trillion last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The deal has accelerated the integration of the three economies, with parts supply chains and commodities now crisscrossing their borders.

The 90-day period is required under the so-called “fast track” negotiating authority granted to the president by Congress. Fast-track allows only an up-or-down vote on trade deals, in order to streamline their approval and strengthen the U.S. negotiating hand with partner countries.

Congress granted fast-track to former President Barack Obama in 2015 when his administration was negotiating the now-defunct 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Unless rescinded by lawmakers, the fast-track authority is scheduled to remain in effect until July 2021.

Ross added that he was consulting on the NAFTA talks with leaders of Congress’ two trade panels, the Senate Finance Committee and the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.

Trump’s fellow Republicans hold the majority in both the Senate and House, but many in the party are pro-trade and will insist that any renegotiation not erect protectionist barriers. But a deal that aims to protect more U.S. jobs would likely win support from many Democrats.

Guajardo said that Mexico would be ready to start NAFTA talks any time after the end of May, but would wait until the United States and Canada finish their own legislative processes to prepare for talks.

Asked whether he anticipated that NAFTA negotiations would include a border tax adjustment plan that would levy a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports, as proposed by House Republicans, Ross said that he and the administration would need to see full details on the proposal to pass judgment on it.

Ross and Guajardo also announced a new round of negotiations to try to resolve a long-simmering dispute over U.S. imports of Mexican sugar.

Speaking at a news conference in Houston on Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was open to working with the Trump administration to revise NAFTA.

The U.S. notification period on NAFTA will also give the Trump administration time to secure confirmation of Robert Lighthizer, the nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, who would take a lead role in NAFTA talks. Lighthizer, a long-time trade lawyer for the steel industry, is scheduled for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Frances Kerry