Senate GOP shoots down bill blocking Trump tariffs

Senate GOP shoots down bill blocking Trump tariffs
© Greg Nash

Senate GOP leadership is downplaying the chances of a showdown with President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment MORE over tariffs, predicting they’ll be able to work out their differences without legislation.

Republican lawmakers signaled on Monday that they believe the White House will ultimately narrow the financial penalties after initially only providing exceptions for Canada and Mexico.

Asked about legislation, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynFalling investment revives attacks against Trump's tax cuts GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump says Dems shouldn't hold public hearings MORE (R-Texas) predicted there would be a "back-and-forth" between congressional Republicans and Trump before the tariffs are implemented.

"I think we're making progress without legislation. ... I expect we'll continue that conversation," said Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican.

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump awards Medal of Freedom to racing industry icon Roger Penske Trump holds more Medal of Freedom ceremonies than predecessors but awards fewer medals Trump to award Medal of Freedom to former Attorney General Edwin Meese MORE (R-Utah), the chairman of the Finance Committee, told reporters "let's wait and see what happens."

"I think the president knows we're going to have to work that out," he said.

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Trump announced late last week that he would slap a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum. Mexico and Canada are exempted from the penalties, for now, as they try to negotiate a larger trade agreement with the U.S.

The move was a direct rebuke to congressional Republicans who had worked frantically behind the scenes, and through public pleas, for Trump to back down or at least significantly narrow the tariffs.

The penalties are expected to be implemented within 15 days. That gives Congress little time to do what has so far eluded them: win over a president who put protectionist trade policies at the center of his presidential campaign.

Several GOP senators have appeared open to legislation nullifying, or broadly addressing, the tariffs.

Hatch told reporters late last week that there was a "good chance" Congress would pass legislation "if I have my way."

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation on Monday to nullify Trump's tariffs, saying, "Congress simply can’t be complicit as this administration courts economic disaster in this fashion."

Flake noted that he hadn’t yet started reaching out to colleagues to get them to support his measure.

Neither Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Biden not ruling out Senate voting to impeach Trump: 'It will depend on what their constituency says' Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate MORE (R-Ky.) nor House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis Ryan Retirees should say 'no thanks' to Romney's Social Security plan California Governor Newsom and family dress as 2020 Democrats for Halloween DC's liaison to rock 'n' roll MORE (R-Wis.) have weighed in on taking legislative action. Both emphasized that they wanted to work with Trump to narrow the tariffs in the immediate wake of his decision.

Because any legislation will need Trump’s signature, it could ultimately be required to get two-thirds support in both chambers — a Herculean task for a GOP-controlled Congress against a Republican president.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Sunday shows — New impeachment phase dominates Rand Paul says Trump has 'every right' to withhold Ukraine aid over corruption MORE (R-Wis.), who has been critical of the tariffs and supportive of legislation to stop them, appeared skeptical that Congress would ultimately buck the president.

“I mean, even if we were to get a vote on it, would it pass? And would we override a veto? So, legislatively there's not that much we can do,” he said on Monday. 

There’s no sign that McConnell or Ryan would want to expend political capital going head-to-head with a GOP president in a midterm election year.

"I don't think we're there yet. I'm not a fan of the trade policy, but I don't think we're there yet,” said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntCongress hunts for path out of spending stalemate GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid MORE (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership. “I think it may work itself out.”

A majority of GOP voters support Trump’s tariffs and his handling of trade policy, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month.

The poll found that 58 percent of GOP voters support the tariffs, and 69 percent approve of his handling of trade.

Nullifying the tariffs isn’t the only option senators have. They could also hold up nominees or refuse to renew Trump’s ability to fast-track trade deals through Congress. Such a dramatic step appears unlikely considering a Republican-controlled Senate gave President Obama the same power.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report: Public impeachment hearings to begin next week MORE (R-S.D.), asked about legislation, predicted Republicans will want to wait and see what the administration does before making a decision.

“I think we're probably going to pay a little bit of attention to what the administration does and how they implement this going forward. They've taken Canada and Mexico out, which is a move in the right direction, but the question is, you know, what about European allies, etc.,” said Thune, the No. 3 Senate Republican.

With Congress expected to leave on March 23 for a two-week recess, quick action on tariffs is unlikely. The Senate is currently debating reforms to the Dodd-Frank banking bill. It’s expected to turn next to legislation to combat online sex trafficking and funding the government

Supporters of tariff legislation would also need to win over McConnell, who keeps a tight grip on the floor schedule, in order to set up a vote.

Flake, asked about leadership’s cool reception to legislation, said he believes other lawmakers will want to formally weigh in.

“There will be a lot of members who want to vote," he said. "So, we’ll see."