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's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' 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 McConnellToomey on gun reform: 'Beto O'Rourke is not helping' Election meddling has become the new normal of US diplomacy DC statehood push faces long odds despite record support MORE (R-Ky.) in a bind. 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump walks tightrope on gun control Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Trump: 'Great to see' Pelosi plan to lower drug prices 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 PortmanCost for last three government shutdowns estimated at billion The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE (R-Ohio) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight 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 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 LighthizerOn The Money: Economy adds 164K jobs in July | Trump signs two-year budget deal, but border showdown looms | US, EU strike deal on beef exports Chinese, US negotiators fine-tuning details of trade agreement: report The Trump economy keeps roaring ahead MORE, senior economic adviser Larry KudlowLawrence (Larry) Alan KudlowMORE, Kudlow's predecessor Gary CohnGary David CohnTrump says US will hit China with new round of tariffs next month Gary Cohn bemoans 'dramatic impact' of Trump tariffs Press: Acosta, latest to walk the plank 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 AlexanderDemocrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 EXCLUSIVE: Swing-state voters oppose 'surprise' medical bill legislation, Trump pollster warns MORE (R-Tenn.), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerStatue of Chief Standing Bear to be unveiled in Capitol The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal Landmark US-Russia arms control treaty poised for final blow MORE (R-Neb.), Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungSenators pressure Trump to help end humanitarian crisis in Kashmir Congress set for chaotic fall sprint Overnight Defense: Senate fails to override Trump veto on Saudi arms sales | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan | Senators tee up nominations, budget deal ahead of recess MORE (R-Ind.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstTrump judicial picks face rare GOP opposition 'Mike Pounce' trends on Twitter after Trump slip at GOP retreat Overnight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year MORE (R-Iowa), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFeinstein calls on Justice to push for release of Trump whistleblower report Senate Judiciary Committee requests consultation with admin on refugee admissions Trump reignites court fight with Ninth Circuit pick 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 SasseManufacturing group leads coalition to urge Congress to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank The Hill's Morning Report - Trump ousts Bolton; GOP exhales after win in NC Trump endorses Sasse in 2020 race MORE (R-Neb.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Defense: Trump hits Iranian central bank with sanctions | Trump meeting with Ukrainian leader at UN | Trump touts relationship with North Korea's Kim as 'best thing' for US Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg courts critics on Capitol Hill | Amazon makes climate pledge | Senate panel approves 0M for state election security Zuckerberg woos Washington critics during visit MORE (D-Va.) and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanDemocrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Overnight Health Care: Juul's lobbying efforts fall short as Trump moves to ban flavored e-cigarettes | Facebook removes fact check from anti-abortion video after criticism | Poll: Most Democrats want presidential candidate who would build on ObamaCare Lawmakers weigh responses to rash of ransomware attacks 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.