(Adds Pence comments, paragraphs 11-12)
By Steve Scherer and Roberta Rampton
OTTAWA, May 30 (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday he was pushing to get the U.S. Congress to ratify the new North American trade agreement this summer after both Canada and Mexico signaled they are ready to start the approval process.
Pence, the Trump administration’s point person for getting the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) approved by Congress, played down concern about Democratic opposition to the deal after a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa.
The deal, which was signed late last year, is meant to replace the existing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It has yet to be ratified by any of the three countries.
Canada formally began the process on Wednesday and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Thursday announced his government’s intention to send the treaty to Mexico’s Congress for ratification.
“Issues in Washington, D.C. can arise, but the American people should know, the people of Canada should know, that our administration is absolutely committed to driving forward, to seeing the Congress of the United States approve the USMCA this summer,” Pence said after meeting with Trudeau.
Pence’s trip is the first official visit to Canada by a senior member of the Trump administration since President Donald Trump stormed out of a G7 summit hosted by Trudeau last year and accused the prime minister of being “dishonest and weak.”
The vice president has been traveling through U.S. states dependent on trade with Canada and Mexico to make the case for the deal, which faces a tricky path ahead of presidential and congressional elections next year.
Last week, Trump fought with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will control the timing of any initial vote on the trade deal, over her party’s investigations of his administration. He also said Pelosi does not understand the agreement.
Some lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives have said the deal needs stronger enforcement provisions for new labor and environmental standards.
But on Thursday Pence struck an optimistic tone, emphasizing that the administration would work with rank-and-file lawmakers to advance the deal. Pence also said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer would be on Capitol Hill next week to work on implementation legislation for the treaty.
Just after meeting Trudeau, Pence confirmed that the White House submitted a statement of administrative action to the U.S. Congress to speed up a vote on the treaty, prompting Pelosi to say it was “not a positive step.”
Pence then responded to Pelosi saying he thought the administrative action would facilitate discussions with lawmakers and help get the legislation implemented.
On his part, Trudeau said he hopes Democratic lawmakers see the improvements in the deal on labor and environmental provisions.
“We made sure that from multiple angles this was a better deal,” Trudeau said.
Pence and Trudeau also discussed relations with China, which is embroiled in a trade war with the United States and sparring with Canada over the arrest of a senior executive of China-based Huawei Technologies Co Ltd in Vancouver.
Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, the world’s largest telecoms network gear maker, on a U.S. warrant in December. China subsequently arrested two Canadian men and charged them with espionage and cut off imports of key Canadian commodities.
The U.S. vice president thanked Canada for standing up for the rule of law when it detained Meng, who is the daughter of Huawei’s founder. He also said they discussed the arrest of the two Canadians extensively, and that Trump will speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping about them at the G20 meeting in Japan at the end of June.
“We’re going to continue to urge China to release the Canadian citizens even while we deal with the larger economic and structural issues,” Pence said.
Washington has accused Huawei of being tied to China’s government, and has effectively banned U.S. firms from doing business with the company for national security reasons.
Separately, Pence said the U.S. government and Canada should work together to hold Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accountable and expose the “malign influence” of Cuba, while Trudeau insisted that Cuba could still play a positive role in Venezuela.
As promised on Wednesday, Trudeau raised his concern about women’s rights and “the new anti-choice laws being passed in a number of American states” with Pence, a social conservative and opponent of abortion.
Pence said the conversation was respectful, adding: “Friends can have differences of opinion and still be friends.” (Reporting by Steve Scherer and Roberta Rampton in Ottawa Editing by Sandra Maler and Matthew Lewis)