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Trade agreement revision will be among Congress's 'heaviest' lifts, Cornyn says

One of the prominent Republicans in the U.S. Senate used an appearance at CERAWeek by IHS Markit to take President Donald Trump to task over his trade policies and highlight the challenges federal lawmakers are working through to get a North American trade agreement approved.

Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, voiced his support for a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, colloquially called "NAFTA 2.0" and formally known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.

Despite White House endorsement, the USMCA's passage through both houses of Congress is not a sure thing, Cornyn noted. The majority whip said negotiations between the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives are ongoing in an effort to find a mutually palatable compromise.

"That'll be one the heaviest things to lift we'll have this year," he said.

Cornyn touted the role that free trade has played in U.S. economic development over the years and, in a relatively uncommon move for a Republican federal lawmaker, criticized Trump for not sharing that view.

"Trade has gotten a little bit of a black eye in the public domain," Cornyn, who is expected to run for a fourth term in 2020, said. "I'll call the president a populist and not a free trader, … and he likes to use tariffs to bring people to the table."

Turning to government's role in the energy sector specifically, Cornyn argued that expanding regulatory involvement in the industry would be a mistake. He argued that the federal government is the biggest threat to the U.S. energy industry and dubbed the Green New Deal, which has been embraced by a number of members of the Democratic party, to be "radical."

"It's this attitude that all of our nation's problems can be solved in Washington, D.C. It's just not true," he said. "The answer is not more government. It is not something like the Green New Deal. It is more innovation. Anything we can do as a government to encourage more innovation, the better."

Cornyn saved his harshest words for Russia and President Vladimir Putin, who he said hopes to control the course of Europe by serving as its sole source of energy with large amounts of Russian natural gas.

"Russia is a rogue, not a peer," he said.

He does consider China to be peer, although he criticized what he sees as the nation's "bad record of stealing intellectual property and know-how." Still, the Texas senator said it is in no one's interest for the U.S. and China to be involved in a trade war or armed conflict, adding that he hoped the Trump administration and China's leadership could find common ground.

"We need to find a way for both the U.S. and China to rise … and I think we can do that," he said. "But it'll take a lot of hard work and we need to keep talking."