GOP growing frustrated with Trump's trade threats

Republican lawmakers are urging President Trump to proceed cautiously on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) after he shocked leaders in Canada and Mexico by threatening to pull out of the 23-year-old accord. 

They immediately registered their alarm with the administration after word leaked last week that Trump was considering an executive order to pull out of the trade pact.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchBottom line Bottom line Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  MORE (R-Utah), who has jurisdiction over trade and customs, said he was troubled by news of the order and “raised some concerns, too,” with the administration.

Trump quickly dropped the threat, giving Republicans a sense of whiplash.

“I couldn’t tell whether that was a strategy or just a miscue inside the White House,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerHas Congress captured Russia policy? Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump MORE (R-Tenn.) said of the reversal. 

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Trump has ratcheted up his trade tactics in recent days, slapping a 20 percent tariff on softwood lumber imports from Canada and warning that he will not tolerate what he says is unfair treatment of American dairy imported to Canada. 

But the tough talk is making his allies in Congress nervous because Canada and Mexico, the two other signatories to NAFTA, buy billions of dollars in American goods.

“As far as any renegotiation, you have to be careful to make sure you’re going to get a better deal for our farmers who rely on exports, our manufacturers and others,” said Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Bottom line Bipartisan senators seek funding for pork producers forced to euthanize livestock MORE (R-N.D.), whose home state borders Canada and exports corn and dry beans to Mexico.

“If you’re going to go down that road, you better know you can get a better deal,” he added.

GOP senators say worries about trade disputes are running high in their conference.

While they are open to changing NAFTA, especially to strengthen enforcement provisions that have been largely ignored by U.S. trade officials, the framework of the pact should remain intact, they say.

“There’s a lot of sentiment along those lines,” said Sen. John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanCOVID-19 relief talks look dead until September  Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick The Hill's Coronavirus Report: San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus Artistic Director Tim Seelig says choirs are dangerous; Pence says, 'We have saved lives' MORE (R-Ark.), whose home state exported $1.2 billion to Canada and $837 million to Mexico in 2015, its two biggest foreign markets.

GOP lawmakers say Trump is playing with fire and warn that billions of dollars in American exports hang in the balance while global competitors such as China and Brazil wait to pounce on agricultural markets in North America. 

“As a Kansan, our state would be very much impacted by the loss of a trading relationship, the ability to export to Mexico and Canada,” said Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranLobbying world This World Suicide Prevention Day, let's recommit to protecting the lives of our veterans Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg acknowledges failure to take down Kenosha military group despite warnings | Election officials push back against concerns over mail-in voting, drop boxes MORE (R-Kan.). “We need to make certain our relationship with those countries doesn’t deteriorate over a conversation about renegotiating NAFTA or pulling out.”

GOP lawmakers for weeks have been calling on the president to begin showing progress on negotiating one-on-one trade deals with other countries to make up for his opposition to multilateral trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump pulled out of after taking office.

So far they have seen little in the way of results, to their mounting frustration.

“The problem as I see it is you have a White House trade council who insists on 24 different policies and bilateral agreements,” said Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by National Industries for the Blind - Trump seeks to flip 'Rage' narrative; Dems block COVID-19 bill GOP senators say coronavirus deal dead until after election MORE (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a member of the Finance panel. 

“We also have to export things that we grow,” he said. “Right now we have Russia selling more wheat than the United States and Brazil finally coming to fruition as a major, major agricultural exporter, exporting more soybeans than the United States.

“We have to reach a better understanding within the administration,” he added.

The United States sent $20.5 billion in food products to Canada in 2016, making it the second-largest agricultural export market. America exported $17.9 billion to Mexico last year, the third-biggest market.

Pulling out of NAFTA would deal a heavy blow to farmers in agriculture-heavy red states, GOP senators warn. They say voters in those states played just as important of a role in electing Trump as blue-collar workers in manufacturing states.

Lawmakers hope the administration will change its tune with major agricultural trading partners now that the Senate has confirmed Sonny Perdue as secretary of Agriculture.

Trump’s pick to serve as U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, is still pending.

It remains unclear how serious Trump is about leaving NAFTA. 

The draft order certainly grabbed the attention of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, but might have been a negotiating ploy. 

After dropping the order, Trump praised the U.S. relationship with both countries as “very special” and expressed hope of renegotiating a “fair deal.”

But Republicans in Congress worry that testing those relationships could be dangerous, especially when foreign competitors, whether it be Russia, Brazil or China, are looking to grab U.S. market share. 

“We knock the number two and three countries in the head, you may do lumber a favor but the retaliation coming back — you really have to think these things through with regard to the law of unintended effects,” Roberts said.