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Ernst sees Trump opposition to NAFTA softening

Senator speaks to corn growers group in Tama

Sen. Joni Ernst speaks at the Iowa Corn Growers Association annual crop fair at the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel in Tama on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. Ernst gave an update on her activities related to agriculture in Washington, D.C. and then took questions from audience members on topics ranging from health care to the new tax bill. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Sen. Joni Ernst speaks at the Iowa Corn Growers Association annual crop fair at the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel in Tama on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. Ernst gave an update on her activities related to agriculture in Washington, D.C. and then took questions from audience members on topics ranging from health care to the new tax bill. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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TAMA — Add U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s voice to those who believe that President Donald Trump is reassessing his position on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Although the president repeatedly has threatened to pull out of the 23-year-old trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, “I think he has doubts,” Ernst told members of the Iowa Corn Growers at their winter meeting Monday in Tama.

Ernst, who was among a group of GOP senators who met with the president to discuss NAFTA before Christmas, said Trump was under the impression they wanted him to pull out of the agreement with the countries that are the United States’ and Iowa’s largest trading partners.

However, when Trump polled everyone at the meeting, Ernst said only U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer supported withdrawing from NAFTA.

None of the farm state senators in the room advised him to end the deal that has been under renegotiation for months.

“He was surprised (because of) all these little birds chirping in his ear about how bad NAFTA is,” she told the corn growers association.

Perhaps he heard the farm-state senators.

Last week, Trump told the American Farm Bureau Federation meeting in Tennessee that he was “working very hard to get a better deal for our country and for our farmers and for our manufacturers.”

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Ernst, who expects to have a follow-up meeting with Trump to continue the discussion over NAFTA, said the goal is “to make sure he understands how important this is not just for the ag economy, not just for the auto industry, but this is a good thing nationwide.”

NAFTA negotiators from all three countries, who have not made much progress for months, meet for another session later this month and may make progress on part of the agreement on auto manufacturing.

Although negotiations are ongoing, Ernst said the sooner a new agreement is in place, the better it will be for agricultural producers.

“The worry that we have is that if we’re not signaling a strong partnership with Canada and Mexico, they’re going to have Plan B and Plan C lined up to fill any gaps that are created,” she told reporters.

Argentina and Brazil, for instance, would like to step in to sell commodities to Mexico, she said.

“If we lose this opportunity, I’m afraid we won’t be able to re-engage with Mexico,” said Ernst, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “That gap in corn will be filled by other nations. The same would be true with dairy, the auto industry. They’ll find a way to work with other partners.”

Ernst also updated the corn growers on Ag Committee work on the farm bill, which she hopes will be approved this year.

“One of the common themes I hear from producers is the need to be able to count on the stability that is provided by the farm bill programs, especially during a time when we see real challenges in farming and our rural communities,” Ernst said.

She assured the corn producers that maintaining a “robust” crop insurance program is one of her top priorities.

“I hear that all of the time when I’m out and about,” Ernst said.

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Last May, Trump angered farm groups when he proposed cutting $46.54 billion in federal agricultural funding, mostly by capping the amount the government chips in toward crop insurance premiums.

He he seemed to backtrack from that while addressing the Farm Bureau last week.

“I’m looking forward to working with Congress to pass the farm bill on time so that it delivers for all of you and I support a bill that includes crop insurance,” Trump told the group.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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