ALTOONA — Vice President Mike Pence implored Congress to pass an updated trade agreement with Canada and Mexico in a stop Thursday at J&D Manufacturing.

Pence held a private roundtable meeting to discuss trade issues with Chippewa Valley business leaders and legislators before touting the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement to a crowd of about 200 workers and area residents.

“The time has come for Congress to pass the USMCA. It’s a win for Wisconsin and a win for America,” Pence said from a raised platform, backed by six J&D workers and a huge banner declaring “Wisconsin manufacturers support USMCA.”

Pence declared that the new trade deal, signed by President Trump and the leaders of Canada and Mexico last year but still awaiting congressional approval, would update the North American Free Trade Agreement in a way that would enable U.S. workers to compete on a level playing field in North America.

“Under President Trump’s leadership, I promise you the days of undermining American manufacturing and undercutting American agriculture are over,” Pence said. “We are going to fight for trade deals that put America first.”

The vice president’s visit was part of his national tour this spring to promote the trade deal, including an appearance last week at a St. Paul steel mill. During his Altoona stop, Pence encouraged listeners to urge their federal lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, to support the USMCA.

In a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., Kind said congressional leaders from both parties believe the Trump administration must do something about tariffs implemented as part of the president’s trade war, which is harming American farmers and manufacturers, before the USMCA can move forward.

“Tariffs don’t work. They just invite retaliation and hurt the very people you’re trying to help,” Kind said.

“Let’s be clear. Tariffs are just taxes, and we’re the ones who pay those taxes — not China, not Mexico, not Canada,” he said. “It’s American consumers who pay the increased costs on Mexican, Canadian and Chinese products we import.”

Kind also maintained that congressional leaders want to see stronger enforcement mechanisms added before approving the trade agreement.

But Pence said experts believe the USMCA would affect 2 million manufacturing jobs that depend on exports to Canada and Mexico while also benefiting Wisconsin’s dairy industry.

The potential new trade agreement likely would have a small positive impact on the U.S. economy, with the manufacturing sector experiencing the greatest gains, according to a recent analysis by the U.S. International Trade Commission.

“Under the USMCA, as the president loves to say, the American workers are going to win like never before,” Pence said. “The president and I have done our jobs. Under the president’s leadership, we negotiated a deal that puts American jobs and workers first, and now it’s time for Congress to do their job and pass the USMCA.”

Passing the trade deal would be a major victory for the American economy, including the heartland, the vice president said.

Pence concluded his speech by declaring, “I truly do believe that with your support and the USMCA passed into law, and with President Donald Trump in the White House and with God’s help, we’re going to make Wisconsin and America more prosperous than ever before. We’re going to make manufacturing and agriculture more prosperous than it’s ever been, and to borrow a phrase, we’re going to make America great again.”

Tracy Trippler, president and co-owner of Altoona-based J&D, said she believes the USMCA would benefit the maker of products for the agricultural industry by opening export markets for its customers — struggling U.S. farmers.

Kurt Bauer, president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said NAFTA generated a net gain in jobs for Wisconsin, but the new trade deal would be an improvement because it strengthens enforcement mechanisms and updates rules based on economic changes since the deal signed during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

The USMCA has the potential to be incredibly important because Canada and Mexico account for 46 percent of exports by Wisconsin companies, Bauer said, arguing that approving the deal should lead to resolving tariff issues.

However, Darin Von Ruden, a Westby dairy farmer who is president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, issued a statement Thursday indicating that a federal policy mechanism to balance supply and demand in the dairy industry would have more impact than the small boost in dairy exports likely to result from a new trade agreement.

“Wisconsin dairy farmers are losing money each time they walk into the barn, because the flood of milk on the market has driven the price lower than what it costs to produce it,” Von Ruden said. “No government bailout or new trade deal is going to solve that problem. We need a federal framework for bringing milk production in line with demand, and the longer the federal government puts off doing this, the more dairy farms we will lose.”

Rare access

State Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, one of nine people who took part in the roundtable discussion, said participants expressed concern about the negative impact of tariffs and encouraged the administration to seek a solution as soon as possible. Pence assured participants that better trade deals would lead to an improved long-term trade climate, Summerfield said.

“Hopefully at the end of the day, we will get a better deal for Wisconsin and the United States moving forward,” Summerfield said.

Another roundtable participant, Dunn County farmer and Wisconsin Farm Bureau president Jim Holte, said he emphasized the need to pass the USMCA soon.

“Wisconsin’s agricultural economy greatly benefits from trade and the relationships with our neighboring countries,” Holte said. “Any more market access we can grant our anxious farmers would be welcomed.”

Trippler called the roundtable “a great opportunity to have our voice listened to by someone who could actually do something about it.”

J&D worker Ryan Schweikert called it an “awesome experience” to have the vice president stop at his workplace, while co-workers Hutch Ruggles and Karl Spadgenske marveled at the level of advance planning and security that go into such a visit.

After Pence’s 20-minute speech, he greeted members of the audience briefly before heading to Fort McCoy to meet with soldiers and their families.

Pence last visited the Chippewa Valley in October, when he headlined a campaign rally for former GOP Gov. Scott Walker at Precision Pipeline in the Chippewa County town of Wheaton.

Wisconsin is expected to be a key battleground state in the 2020 presidential race. Trump won the state by less than a percentage point in 2016 after Democrats had carried Wisconsin in presidential elections for decades.