Senators hammer Ross over Trump tariffs

Senators hammer Ross over Trump tariffs
© Greg Nash

Senators hammered Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossBannon's subpoena snub sets up big decision for Biden DOJ House panel, Commerce Department reach agreement on census documents China sanctions Wilbur Ross, others after US warns of doing business in Hong Kong MORE Wednesday over the Trump administration's tariffs during a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill.

Ross faced a wall of bipartisan criticism with senators questioning President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE's trade actions and expressing fears over retaliation from trading partners.

On the hot seat, Ross defended the tariffs as necessary to protect American businesses.

“Actions taken by the president are necessary to revive America’s essential steel and aluminum industries," Ross told lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee. “Allowing imports to continue unchecked threatens to impair our national security."

The heated hearing comes as lawmakers in both parties have raised alarm over Trump's moves in recent weeks to implement a series of tariffs on China as well as U.S. allies, including Canada, Mexico and the European Union.

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Those tariffs have rattled markets and sparked anger in the business community, which has warned they could lead to job losses, damage growth and undercut any gains from the GOP tax law.

At the hearing, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (R-Utah) targeted tariffs put in place under Section 232, which allows the administration to take trade actions to protect national security.

"The lessons of the steel and aluminum tariffs are clear — these tariffs do not support U.S. national security," Hatch told Ross. 

Hatch shared stories about how other businesses in the broader economy are being affected by the metal tariffs.

"I just don’t see how the damage posed on all of these sectors could possibly advance our national security," Hatch told Ross. 

"Instead, they harm American manufacturers, damage our economy, hurt American consumers, and disrupt our relationship with our long-time allies while giving China a free pass," he said. 

Hatch also said he was shocked when the White House called for an investigation into whether tariffs are needed on auto imports for national security reasons. 

“I'm shocked that anyone would consider making it more expensive,” he said. 

"A car isn’t a can of soup, Mr. Secretary,” he added, taking a jab at Ross.

Earlier this year, Ross held up soup and beer cans during a television interview and argued the metal tariffs would only cost pennies per can and not raise consumer prices.

Republican Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonHerschel Walker calls off fundraiser with woman who had swastika in Twitter profile Georgia reporter says state will 'continue to be a premier battleground' Critical race theory becomes focus of midterms MORE (Ga.), whose state is home to soft drink giant Coca-Cola argued otherwise.

"That pennies a can is a penny times a billion for billions of cans of Coca-Cola and other products they produce that are sold every single day," Isakson told Ross.

"We're getting into a war that going to cost lots of billions of dollars," he continued. "We need to make sure we know where we're going before find out we got there and it's the wrong place to be."

Tuesday's hearing showcased the mounting frustration over Trump's trade actions in Congress.

“I wish we would stop invoking national security, because that’s not what this is about,” said Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.). “This is about economic nationalism.”

In March, Trump imposed tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum products. In late May, Trump lifted a temporary exemption for the tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the EU, all of which have or are planning to retaliate. 

“What is it about the Canadian steel industry that is a national security threat?” Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSenators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Sununu exit underscores uncertain GOP path to gain Senate majority 'An earthquake': GOP rides high after Democrats' Tuesday shellacking MORE (D-Colo.) asked Ross.

Ross said that while the U.S. does have a trade surplus in steel with Canada the administration's strategy is to stop China from sending their products through other countries that receive better tariff treatment.

“The only way we’re going to solve the global steel overcapacity is getting all the countries to play ball with us,” Ross said. 

He acknowledged that allies are "complaining bitterly" about the tariffs, but Ross also said they are finally taking action, including by implementing safeguards against Chinese steel in their supply chains.

Toomey who has signed on to a bill from Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (R-Tenn.) to give Congress more authority over Trump's trade actions called the moves against allied trading partners "a wholly inappropriate use of tariffs."

Senators blocked that bill last week though when Corker tried to attach it to an annual defense policy bill.

Corker has said that he is hopeful senators will give the legislation a second look.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenLobbyists turn to infrastructure law's implementation Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos Overnight Energy & Environment — House passes giant climate, social policy bill MORE (D-Ore.), the panel's ranking member, also criticized the process of excluding important products needed by American businesses from tariffs.

He said small businesses "believe they are being held hostage in a bureaucratic twilight zone waiting to see if they're going to escape," calling the process slow and difficult.

He quoted a top Commerce official who said in a report Wednesday that the exclusion process would be "unbelievably random" and that some companies are "going to get screwed."

"Every week it seems like there is more and more bedlam," he said. 

Ross said there have been delays in hiring the people needed but dismissed the report.

He also Ross said that it would be "impossible" to commit to a specific timetable to deal with the applications because requests were still being received.

Trump has also said he will impose tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports. Beijing retaliated with their own batch of duties on U.S. products leading Trump to up the ante Monday. Trump said he would ask officials to produce a list of tariffs for another $200 billion in Chinese goods, which stunned Congress and business groups.

"The basic strategy is to try to bring enough pressure on parties who are not behaving appropriately," Ross told lawmakers.

But Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneParnell exit threatens to hurt Trump's political clout Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama McConnell, Schumer hunt for debt ceiling off-ramp MORE (S.D.), a member of Republican leadership, expressed skepticism and said he worried about the effect of tit-for-tat tariffs.

"This thing seems to be escalating out of control fairly quickly," he said.