Angst in GOP over Trump's trade agenda

Angst in GOP over Trump's trade agenda
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Republican lawmakers are concerned about where President Trump is headed on trade and are asking who in the administration is in charge of policies that could affect their home-state economies. 

Their biggest worries are what will replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the largest trade deal in U.S. history until it was scrapped by President Trump — and the future of North American Free Trade Agreement, which the president has called “the single worst trade deal in history.”

Trump talked tough on trade during the campaign, pledging to renegotiate deals that he said have ripped off American workers. But many lawmakers on Capitol Hill are confused about what comes next amid crosstalk from different voices in the administration. 

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Another trade-related concern is Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAnti-Defamation League calls on House leaders to censure Steve King over white supremacy comments Former Ryan fundraisers launch firm Romney writes new chapter in his like-hate relationship with Trump MORE’s (R-Wis.) push for a 20-percent across-the-board tax on imports that some Republicans fear could play havoc with export markets. The Trump administration has sent mixed signals on that idea as well.

Texas, the most populous Republican state in the country, is heavily dependent on trade with Mexico; a trade war could cause significant disruptions to its economy.

“I talked to group of people from Texas today, from San Antonio, and I said the two things that concern me the most about the Texas economy are the negotiation of NAFTA and the border adjustment tax,” Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks Former GOP rep: We would be 'storming the White House' if Obama mulled national emergency The Hill's Morning Report — Groundhog Day: Negotiations implode as shutdown reaches 20 days MORE (Texas) told reporters this past week.

“There’s some uncertainty about the direction of the administration,” Cornyn added in a later interview. “For my state it’s a big deal, and I would argue it’s also a big deal for the country. Six million American jobs depend on bi-national trade with Mexico alone.”

A group of Republican senators met privately with two Trump administration officials on Tuesday: Peter Navarro, who heads the White House office on trade and industrial policy, and Jason Greenblatt, the administration’s special representative for international negotiations.

The administration officials laid our four broad goals and a 13-point agenda for trade, but lawmakers were left with questions. They want to know what concrete progress is being made to negotiate bilateral trade deals to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump pulled out of shortly after taking office.

“I’m not sure where they’re going,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP senators rebuke Trump for using 'Wounded Knee' as 'punchline' GOP senators challenge Trump on shutdown strategy Republican senators skeptical of using national emergency for wall funding MORE (R-S.D.), the third-ranking member of the GOP leadership, who attended the meeting. “They clearly have a different view on some of these trade matters than has been the sort of traditional Republican trade view on Capitol Hill.”

Thune said the message to the Trump administration is that if it doesn’t like multilateral trade deals like TPP and NAFTA, then it needs to be aggressive in negotiating bilateral trade deals to take their place.

“If you don’t like NAFTA then we need bilats with these countries. Let’s get after it. The concern is we lose ground if we don’t,” said Thune, who sits on the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade and represents a state heavily dependent on agriculture. 

After Trump’s tough talk on the campaign trail, GOP lawmakers are waiting to see exactly what he has in mind when it comes to trade. 

“It’s one thing just to come in with a wrecking ball and another thing to come in and say, ‘Look, let’s take a look at this and see how we can improve it,’” said Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsBudowsky: Warning to Senate Republicans The Hill's Morning Report — Negotiations crumble as shutdown enters day 17 Pompeo seen as top recruit for Kansas Senate seat MORE (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Agriculture Committee and a member of the Finance panel.

“With all due respect, Mr. Greenblatt and Mr. Navarro outlining 13 policy guidelines and four goals in minute detail is not the same thing as announcing several countries they’re working with to get strong bilateral trade agreements,” Roberts added.

Lawmakers say they’re not sure whether Navarro is in charge of Trump’s trade policy, or if that role will fall to Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s nominee to serve as U.S. trade representative, or Wilbur Ross, his choice to serve as Commerce secretary. Lighthizer and Ross are waiting for Senate confirmation, complicating matters.  

Trump told Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday that he only wanted relatively minor changes made to NAFTA and told reporters “we’ll be tweaking it.”

Cornyn applauded those comments and called them “pretty reassuring.” 

But one of the 13 points that administration trade officials shared with GOP lawmakers this week asserted “Canadians have played us," making reference to chapter 19 of the treaty, which addresses the dispute settlement process when there are allegations of dumping and countervailing duties.

“There’s concern about who’s in charge. There’s concern about the direction of the administration,” said a senior GOP aide.

Something else that triggered concern among lawmakers was the fourth of the four principles Navarro presented that called for “automatic renegotiation” of trade deals if “trade deficits occur.” The language struck some lawmakers as a hair trigger for reopening trade deals. 

Republicans from farm states are getting especially agitated because commodity prices have slumped and farmers need to increase their exports to survive financially. Wheat, corn and soybeans are piling up in silos while Congress waits for a clear signal from the Trump administration. 

“There’s nothing like seeing a silo that’s full and a whole mound of grain on the ground with a cover on it,” Roberts said.

“Commodity prices are so low that farmers aren’t going to make it,” said Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks Marijuana industry boosts DC lobbying team Congress poised to push back at Trump on Saudi Arabia, Syria MORE (R-Colo.). “Trade allows us to have an outlet for our supply right now. We have piles of corn sitting in the countryside."

“We need to open up new avenues of trade,” he added. “NAFTA has been an incredible asset for Colorado."

“I think we have to make it clear that we believe in trade. Trade is important to agriculture, and to tech,” Gardner noted, two important industries in his home state. “We have to advance, not set back trade.”

Some lawmakers were alarmed by reports that Mexico is exploring a deal to buy corn from Brazil and Argentina instead of the United States to retaliate against Trump’s threats of tariffs on Mexican imports. 

“We’ve got plenty of history of when we do something some country doesn’t like then they retaliate against us,” said Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyMcConnell rebukes Steve King over white nationalist comments Congressional Black Caucus calls for Steve King to be removed from committees Grassley, Ernst condemn Steve King's 'white supremacist' comments MORE (R-Iowa), a senior member of the Finance and Agriculture committees.

Trump dubs his trade policy “America First” and extols the potential benefit to manufacturers and American workers. 

On Friday he visited North Charleston, S.C., to visit a Boeing plant that manufacturers the 787-10 Dreamliner.

“We are going to fight for every last American job,” the president told Boeing employees.

But Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottMcConnell rebukes Steve King over white nationalist comments Steve King faces new storm over remarks about white supremacy Pelosi says there's 'interest' in taking action on Steve King MORE (R), who represents South Carolina, said an “America First” approach should take “into consideration long-term ramification of trade deals and not just short-term victories.” 

He said NAFTA has had a positive impact on South Carolina.

“I want to wait and see what they actually mean by their position of renegotiating” that trade accord, he said.