The highest-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Congress says a deal aimed at ratifying the new North American trade pact is imminent, a development that potentially holds significant consequences for Canada.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, offered her strongest hint yet that negotiations between Democrats and the Trump administration are approaching success.
An agreement to ratify the new NAFTA would likely spur Justin Trudeau's minority government to follow suit with a ratification bill.
"I do believe that if we can get this to the place it needs to be — which is imminent — that this can be a template for future trade agreements," Pelosi told a news conference Thursday.
"I'd like to see us get it done this year. That would be my goal."
The development comes at an especially tense moment in Washington: impeachment proceedings have overshadowed the political agenda, and Democrats are being pressed to prove they can achieve more than attacks on President Donald Trump.
Pelosi said that once a working group of Democrats reaches an agreement with the administration, language for an implementing bill can be written.
Democrats have been pushing for adjustments that would buy support from allies in the labour movement, who have been skeptical of the agreement negotiated between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.
In particular, they have asked for changes that would make it impossible for one country to paralyze a panel intended to enforce the agreement's labour provisions.
Democrats have also been pushing for mechanisms that will allow additional scrutiny of Mexican factories to ensure that country is implementing its recently passed labour reforms.
Canada has also suggested it will help with implementing Mexico's reforms.
The federal government has signed an agreement with Mexico, and invited Canadian labour officials to help that country with the herculean task of certifying new unions that can renegotiate hundreds of collective agreements in compliance with Mexico's new standards.
The update to NAFTA, signed after a year of acrimonious negotiations, includes sweeping changes to auto-production rules and dispute-resolution mechanisms; protection for digital companies; and slightly liberalized trade in dairy and cross-border online purchases.
Trump administration officials and allies in Congress have been hammering Democrats with the charge that important business is being ignored amid the frenzy to impeach Trump.
House minority leader Kevin McCarthy repeated that message Thursday.
He accused Democrats this week of "hijacking" committees, including the committee that oversees trade, with investigative work related to impeachment.
"It only emphasized again what is not being done in Congress and what should be being done," McCarthy said.
"Impeachment has overtaken every single committee."
Democrats defend themselves by pointing to scores of bills they've passed, now being ignored by the Republican-controlled Senate.
They also noted that members of the House ways and means committee, which deals with trade issues, were in Ottawa just last week meeting with the Trudeau government to discuss adjustments to the trade deal.
"They're in the final drafting process," Massachusetts Democrat Katherine Clark said Thursday.
She called it a "very successful" meeting, and said it's her understanding from the working group that they are awaiting feedback from the administration.
In Ottawa, the Liberals have said they want to wait for the new NAFTA to make progress in the U.S. Congress, and see how the agreement changes, before introducing an implementing bill in Canada.
The Liberals are believed to have enough votes to easily get the agreement ratified, despite their minority status.
The Conservatives backed the agreement in an earlier procedural vote before the election, and while Leader Andrew Scheer has said he's unhappy with the pact, he promised to help pass it, saying it would reduce economic uncertainty.