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U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan has set a May 17 deadline to be notified of a new NAFTA trade deal to give the current Congress a chance of passing it, while Mexico's top trade official on Thursday said time was running short to meet such a deadline.
Ryan, who controls legislation in the House of Representatives, set his deadline in remarks delivered on Wednesday to the Ripon Society in Washington and publicized on Thursday.
Under the "fast track" trade negotiating law, there are lengthy notification periods before U.S. President Donald Trump could sign a new North American Free Trade Agreement and before Congress could begin considering it.
Letting negotiations drag on much longer would punt consideration to a new Congress elected in November that will take office in January 2018, one that could cede more control to Democrats.
"We have to have the paper — not just an agreement, we have to have the paper — from USTR by May 17 for us to vote on it this year, in December, in the lame duck" session, Ryan said.
A spokeswoman for Ryan said that he was referring to a notification of intent to sign the NAFTA agreement, not necessarily the full text.
Major differences remain between the three members of NAFTA after more than eight months of largely slow-moving negotiations launched at the insistence of President Trump, who wants major changes to the 1994 pact.
Mexico's Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said he expected to learn by the end of Friday whether a new deal was possible. He and his counterparts have been meeting in Washington since Monday to try to bridge major gaps.
"I think we will be finding out through the day and tomorrow ... if we really have what it takes to be able to land these things in the short run," Guajardo told Reuters.
A source close to the talks said it was possible that Guajardo, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland could extend their meetings into the weekend.
A USTR spokeswoman declined comment while a Freeland spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Guajardo told Reuters that "we have suitcases for two weeks if necessary."
This week's talks hit an obstacle as the United States and Mexico sought to settle differences over the key issue of automobiles.
"Mexico obviously is here in order to negotiate the best agreement for Mexican workers and consumers. It will take as long as it will take," Mexican deputy economy minister Juan Carlos Baker told reporters late in the day.
But Ryan expressed skepticism that a deal could be reached in time and noted that several major issues remained unresolved, such as U.S. demands for more access to Canada's dairy market and to make an investment dispute arbitration system optional.
"There are a handful of unresolved issues and I'm just not — I don't want to make news, but we'll see if they can get this done by May 17 and get us the paper to Congress, which then we could have this vote in December," Ryan said. "If they can't, then we won't."
Trump regularly threatens to walk away from NAFTA, underscoring uncertainty over the pact. Business executives complain that the lack of clarity is hitting investment.
Freeland, however, struck a more optimistic tone. Speaking to reporters after meetings with U.S. legislators on Capitol Hill, she sidestepped questions as to when an agreement might be reached but said the three nations had made a lot of progress since Monday.
She is due to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at 4:30 p.m. ET on Friday.
Mexico has launched a counterproposal to U.S. demands to toughen automotive industry content rules and boost wages. Trump blames cheaper wages in Mexico for manufacturing job losses in the United States.
Many other major issues crucial to a deal are still unresolved, including U.S. demands for a five-year sunset clause, and elimination of settlement panels for trade disputes.
After meeting with Lighthizer on Thursday, Guajardo told reporters that the talks were not just covering autos.
"You cannot think that in a process of negotiations we're going to solve one item without reviewing the overall balance of the agreement," he said. "We're going over all the items. It's very important to stress that."