GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback

GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are negotiating among themselves over how to respond to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE's trade agenda as they brace for new tariffs on the European Union and a trade deal with China that some fear could leave American farmers worse off. 

There are divisions over whether to send a stern message to the White House with a tough bill that’s likely to get vetoed — or a more modest proposal that could actually get Trump’s signature and become law. 

It was a dilemma that GOP leaders eschewed altogether in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, deciding not to advance legislation curbing Trump’s power to impose tariffs for fear an intraparty fight could hurt voter turnout.

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This year, however, there is strong support from influential members of the Senate GOP for reining in Trump’s tariff power but disagreement over exactly how to proceed, putting Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Jon Stewart slams McConnell over 9/11 victim fund MORE (R-Ky.) in a bind. 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill MORE (R-Iowa) says he will introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would strengthen what his office calls “checks and balances between Congress and the executive branch by imposing new consultation and reporting requirements.”

He says that any trade restrictions imposed by the president would be limited to a defined period of time unless extended by an act of Congress. 

But Republicans on the Finance panel are divided over how hard to push back against Trump, with two leading members — Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanHouse passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams House passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump MORE (R-Ohio) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyOvernight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race MORE (R-Pa.) — advocating for different, competing approaches that Grassley is trying to meld together behind the scenes.  

Grassley, Portman and Toomey met with Trump last month to express their concerns about the impact of tariffs on the global economy. 

Time is of the essence as Trump threatened last week to impose $11 billion in tariffs on European Union products in retaliation for EU subsidies to Airbus, putting new pressure on GOP lawmakers to act. 

The White House threatened earlier this year to impose a 25 percent tariff on imported cars, which could boomerang on several Republican states if trade partners impose retaliatory penalties.

GOP lawmakers fear that could hit states such as Ohio, Indiana, Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi, which all rank in the nation’s top 10 for auto manufacturing. 

McConnell, who is up for reelection in 2020, doesn’t seem eager to confront the president head on. He has made it his reelection strategy to stick as close to Trump as possible and won’t say whether he’ll bring legislation curbing his tariff authority to the floor. 

Asked if the legislation is needed, McConnell told reporters, “I don’t have anything to say about that, I haven’t looked at it.” 

In addition to senators concerned about auto manufacturing, farm-state Republican lawmakers worry that Trump’s anticipated trade deal with China will hurt U.S agricultural interests. 

Some farmers fear that Trump will negotiate an agreement under which China would buy a certain amount of soybeans and pork but leave other U.S.-produced commodities in limbo.

Mark Powers, the president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents fruit growers in the Northwest, told Bloomberg News that his members are staring down another year of tariffs.

“We’re disappointed. Clearly the priority lies elsewhere,” he said of the expectation that Trump’s trade deal will alleviate pressure on some but not all U.S. agricultural commodities.

Economists say the lingering trade war is dampening global growth, with the International Monetary Fund warning last week that economies around the world are slowing faster than expected. 

Though the biggest obstacle to quick action in the Senate is disagreement among Republicans over how hard to push back on Trump’s trade policies, they are also unsure of how much Democratic support to expect. 

While Democrats can be counted on to oppose most anything that Trump wants to do, his trade policies have put them in a quandary as Democratic constituent groups such as labor unions are critics of globalization and free trade. 

Portman has opted to work closely with the administration on legislation that could have a chance to win the president’s signature and become law. He has consulted with U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerChinese, US negotiators fine-tuning details of trade agreement: report The Trump economy keeps roaring ahead Trump says no discussion of extending deadline in Chinese trade talks MORE, senior economic adviser Larry KudlowLawrence (Larry) Alan KudlowMORE, Kudlow's predecessor Gary CohnGary David CohnTrump officials slow-walk president's order to cut off Central American aid: report John Kelly had to break up argument between US trade officials: report The Hill's Morning Report — Dem ire at Barr intensifies MORE and senior trade advisor Peter Navarro. 

Portman has legislation that would require the Department of Defense, instead of the Department of Commerce, to justify the national security concerns invoked to impose new tariffs under Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act. It would empower Congress to block them by passing a resolution of disapproval, expanding the check provided in the original trade law, which only applied to action on oil imports. 

Portman’s legislation, however, would only apply prospectively and not reach back in time to undo some of Trump’s controversial trade actions, which makes it more palatable to the White House. 

His bill is also sponsored by Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderTaylor Swift thanks Cory Booker for signing Equality Act petition Taylor Swift thanks Cory Booker for signing Equality Act petition Senate health panel to move forward on package to lower health costs next week MORE (R-Tenn.), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle Steve King denied seat on Air Force One for Trump trip to Iowa: report MORE (R-Neb.), Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungIndiana GOP Rep. Brooks says she won't seek reelection Indiana GOP Rep. Brooks says she won't seek reelection Tillis dodges primary challenge in NC MORE (R-Ind.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Cruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control access face major obstacles MORE (R-Iowa), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinNew push to regulate self-driving cars faces tough road Trump remarks deepen distrust with intelligence community Trump remarks deepen distrust with intelligence community MORE (D-Calif.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). 

Senate Republican critics of Portman’s plan, however, say it doesn’t have sharp-enough teeth and argue there’s no mechanism to guarantee the disapproval resolution floor time. 

Toomey’s bill is tougher. It would give Congress 60 days to approve any proposed tariffs under Section 232. If Congress fails to pass an approval resolution within that period, the president’s proposed tariffs would have no effect. Motions to proceed to those approval resolutions would be privileged in both chambers and could not be filibustered. They would be automatically discharged out of committee after 10 days. 

Toomey’s legislation would also transfer more authority to the Department of Defense to determine whether a foreign trade practice poses a national security threat to the United States. 

Unlike Portman’s bill, however, the Toomey proposal would apply retroactively. Any Section 232 tariffs and quotas imposed over the past four years would be repealed unless Congress passes approval resolutions within 75 days of enactment. 

Its co-sponsors are Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSwing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike Swing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike House Dems move to give lawmakers a pay increase MORE (R-Neb.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' MORE (D-Va.) and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanHouse panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices House panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices House passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams MORE (D-N.H.). 

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A senior GOP aide noted that several provisions in the Portman and Toomey proposals are irreconcilable, such as the conflicting oversight pathways — either a disapproval or an approval resolution — and the issue of retroactivity. 

“These are either/or propositions, you can’t have some of them both ways,” the aide said. 

Critics of Toomey’s legislation say that it’s destined for a presidential veto, as Trump won’t be willing to give up his tariff powers. They say Portman’s plan has a better chance of becoming law because of his close consultation with White House advisers. 

The sponsors of the competing bills say they expect Grassley to have a hearing on the legislation after the two-week April recess.