White House signals hard line on Buy American as Ottawa urged to push for exemption

WASHINGTON — The White House isn’t leaving much wiggle room for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to escape Joe Biden’s Buy American rules. 

The two leaders are set to meet virtually later today in Biden’s first bilateral meeting since taking over as U.S. president. 

Trudeau is likely to ask Biden for help in procuring COVID-19 vaccines, since Canada has been squeezed by production problems in Europe.

The two leaders will also talk about China, where Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have been detained for more than two years.

Experts also want Ottawa to push hard for a Canadian exemption from plans to prioritize U.S. businesses for federal infrastructure and procurement. 

But White House press secretary Jen Psaki says no immediate changes to the regime are on the horizon. 

“He signed an executive order; we’re of course evaluating procurement components of that, but no changes anticipated,” Psaki said Monday.

“Of course, the prime minister will bring up whatever he would like to bring up, as is true of any bilateral meeting.”

Eric Miller, a Canada-U. S. expert and president of the D.C.-based Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, said there is synchronicity between the two leaders — and now is the time to take advantage. 

“To me, this is exactly the moment for Canada to go on offence,” Miller said. 

The Biden administration and the Trudeau government have aligned interests on climate change, a multilateral foreign policy and on a new approach to China, he said. 

And Biden, an outspoken champion of unions, needs to be careful not to run afoul of organized labour groups with large memberships on opposite sides of the border. 

“If I were Canada, I’d be pitching very strongly for a Buy American agreement — I mean, the worst they can say is no,” Miller said. 

Blue-collar workers in Canada “are pretty much exactly the same as their U.S. counterparts. Why are you going to hit them with restrictions when it’s like hitting your cousin?”

On Kovrig and Spavor, Psaki did not acknowledge the question of whether Biden would offer any more help with getting the two Canadians home from China. 

They were swept up more than two years ago in an apparent act of retaliation for Canada agreeing to arrest and detain Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to await extradition south of the border, where she’s accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.

“We expect the president, during the meeting, to highlight the strong and deep partnership between the United States and Canada as neighbours, friends, and NATO allies,” Psaki would only say. 

“They will discuss issues of mutual interest, from COVID-19 to climate change and the economic ties that bind our countries, as well as the deep people-to-people bonds we share.”

Maryscott Greenwood, the chief executive officer of the Canadian American Business Council, said the Prime Minister’s Office would do well to imagine Donald Trump is still in the White House. 

“Canada embarked on a very, very forward-leaning, activist agenda about engaging the U.S., inside and outside of D.C.” when Trump was in office, she said. 

“It’s going to be important to have that level of urgency and that level of effort, and not just assume that everything’s good now that Biden’s here.”

The two leaders will also likely discuss Keystone XL, the ill-fated cross-border pipeline expansion that has become a lightning rod for political criticism from both sides of the aisle. 

No one expects anything to change on that front; Biden made that abundantly clear by signing the project’s death warrant on Day 1 of his administration, and Ottawa has shown little appetite for a fight. 

But there may be more fights in the future, provided the U.S. is serious about meeting its climate-change goals, said Bill Reilly, who led the Environmental Protection Agency from 1989 to 1993 under former president George Bush.

Canada is “very likely to be raising issues that run counter to some of the environmental aspirations that animate the Biden administration,” Reilly told a panel discussion Monday hosted by the American Council for Capital Formation. 

“I don’t think some of these issues are going to lend themselves to easy resolution.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2021.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press