May 17 loomed as a deadline for a preliminary agreement after Paul Ryan, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, last week said that for congress to approve a revamped NAFTA, an agreement in principle had to be submitted by that date, or congress would not have enough time to debate and approve it before legislative elections in November.
The remarks came as Washington faced a dizzyingly complex workload in waging multi-front trade battles with Europe, China and its North American trade partners. Even if the auto issues were to be resolved, negotiators would then have to address a variety of other matters on which there remain big disagreements.
His words helped send an indecisive Wall Street lower. The existing deal remains in force and negotiations will continue, but the window to pass it in the current Congress is about to close as US attention shifts to other challenges, like the simmering trade dispute with China.
Speaking Thursday, Ryan indicated if the U.S., Mexico and Canada could reach an agreement soon, meaning Congress could still take it up this year.
The political calendar has imposed tight deadlines.
The prime minister received a call from U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday night in which they discussed the NAFTA negotiations, but a readout provided by Trudeau's office did not include any details. Notably, these two agreements concern markets significantly larger than the United States (with both having total populations nearing the 500 million mark).
"Today is definitely not a do-or-die date". He didn't say who would attend, but his country's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland planned to be in the US capital Thursday for unspecified meetings, according to three people familiar with talks and one Canadian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mexico's Economy Secretary, Ildefonso Guajardo, echoed those sentiments, saying that there will not be a deal by Thursday.
"However, I would not rule out at any point, if the participants show the willingness, that we can settle this negotiation at any moment from the close of May onwards, or in June", the minister told Mexican radio. "We sat down for a month trying to achieve the necessary flexibility...." In any case, he said he was ready to keep negotiating: "We'll keep working until they shut off the lights".
Trudeau said the three countries have not signed off on a new agreement because of one significant sticking point: the Americans' demand for a sunset clause that would allow the deal to automatically expire every five years, pending renewal.
"My guess is, there's probably some wiggle room...but not an indefinite amount", Ryan told reporters on Thursday.