February 28, 2019 / 4:37 PM / 6 months ago

U.S. agriculture chief says trying to persuade Trump on steel quotas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Thursday he is working hard to persuade President Donald Trump that the U.S. steel industry can be adequately protected by tariff rate quotas, rather than plain tariffs, on imports from Canada and Mexico.

FILE PHOTO: Steel drill pipe is seen at sunrise on an oil lease owned by Parsley Energy in the Permian Basin near Midland, Texas U.S. August 24, 2018. Picture taken August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford/File Photo

The three North American countries on Nov. 30 signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) pact to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which governs more than $1.2 trillion in trade.

U.S. farmers - hardest hit by Trump’s trade wars with China, a key buyer of American agricultural products, as well as Mexico and Canada - have long complained that with tariffs remaining in place, they will not be able to benefit fully from the new trade deal.

The USMCA must be approved by the U.S. Congress and Canadian and Mexican legislators before becoming law.

When asked at a U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee hearing about removal of the “Section 232” steel and aluminum tariffs - and retaliatory tariffs on U.S. farm products - Perdue said: “The president, we’re working hard to persuade him that the steel industry here, which is concerned, can be protected through a TRQ program here rather than tariffs and release the retaliatory tariffs.”

Tariff rate quotas can allow a specified amount of product to enter the United States duty free, while applying a tariff on quantities above that quota level. South Korea has agreed to a quota equal to about 70 percent of its steel exports to the United States in 2017.

Perdue said he has been advocating for the removal of tariffs since the signing of the USMCA.

“The expectation was that the agreement would be signed and the tariffs would come off and that hasn’t happened but its in the best interest of all three countries to do the that,” he said.

Chairman of Senate Finance Committee Senator Chuck Grassley has repeatedly called for the removal of tariffs before Congress takes up the USMCA.

Trump had vowed to revamp NAFTA during his 2016 presidential campaign. At times during the USMCA negotiations, he threatened to tear up NAFTA and withdraw the United States from the pact completely, which would have left trade among the three neighbors in disarray.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2017 said that exiting NAFTA without a new deal could devastate American agriculture, cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and “be an economic, political and national-security disaster.”

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by David Lawder; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marguerita Choy

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