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 TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled 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 scrambles to fend off Kobach in Kansas primary Meadows: Election will be held on November third Don't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency MORE (R-Ky.) in a bind. 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyRepublicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election Timeline for GOP's Obama probe report slips as chairman eyes subpoenas GOP hunts for 'Plan B' as coronavirus talks hit wall 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 PortmanOvernight Defense: Pompeo pressed on move to pull troops from Germany | Panel abruptly scraps confirmation hearing | Trump meets family of slain soldier Pompeo, lawmakers tangle over Germany troop withdrawal Senate report says Russian oligarchs evading U.S. sanctions through big-ticket art purchases MORE (R-Ohio) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyDunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy NSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show 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 LighthizerGOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' Pelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 Pelosi sounds hopeful on new NAFTA deal despite tensions with White House MORE, senior economic adviser Larry KudlowLawrence (Larry) Alan KudlowMORE, Kudlow's predecessor Gary CohnGary David CohnFormer national economic council director: I agree with 50 percent of House Democrats' HEROES Act Sunday shows preview: Congress spars over next round of coronavirus relief; GOP seeks offensive after news of Flynn 'unmasking' The Memo: Speculation grows about Fauci's future 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 AlexanderChamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection Pelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive Senate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag MORE (R-Tenn.), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerCongress botched the CFPB's leadership — here's how to fix it White House, Senate GOP clash over testing funds Prioritizing access to care: Keeping telehealth options for all Americans MORE (R-Neb.), Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungRepublicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election Senate GOP posts M quarter haul as candidates, Trump struggle A renewed emphasis on research and development funding is needed from the government MORE (R-Ind.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP The Hill's Campaign Report: Who will Biden pick to be his running mate? Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection MORE (R-Iowa), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinMini-exodus of Trump officials from Commerce to lobby on semiconductors Doug Collins questions Loeffler's trustworthiness in first TV ad Comedian Joel McHale: Reach out and help local restaurants, wear masks with your favorite message; Frontline Foods's Ryan Sarver says we are in inning 3 of the COVID-19 ballgame 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 SasseOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP McConnell: 15-20 GOP senators will not vote for any coronavirus deal CNN chyron says 'nah' to Trump claim about Russia MORE (R-Neb.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerMini-exodus of Trump officials from Commerce to lobby on semiconductors Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding Virginia governor, senators request CDC aid with coronavirus outbreak at immigrant detention facility MORE (D-Va.) and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanHillicon Valley: Feds warn hackers targeting critical infrastructure | Twitter exploring subscription service | Bill would give DHS cyber agency subpoena power Senate-passed defense spending bill includes clause giving DHS cyber agency subpoena power Lawmakers push NOAA to prevent future 'Sharpiegate' 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.