Senators hammer Ross over Trump tariffs

Senators hammer Ross over Trump tariffs
© Greg Nash

Senators hammered Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossPelosi gets standing ovation at Kennedy Center Honors Space race is on: US can't afford congressional inaction in this critical economic sector Trump escalates fight over tax on tech giants 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 John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 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 HatchKey Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock Trump awards Medal of Freedom to racing industry icon Roger Penske Trump holds more Medal of Freedom ceremonies than predecessors but awards fewer medals 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 IsaksonThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Lankford to be named next Senate Ethics chairman The Hill's 12:30 Report: Job growth soars in November 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 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.). “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 BennetTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Schumer to colleagues running for White House: Impeachment comes first Sanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate 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 CorkerRNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing 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 WydenTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field House GOP unveils alternative drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote Pelosi gets standing ovation at Kennedy Center Honors 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 ThuneRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial McConnell: Senate impeachment trial will begin in January McConnell: Senate will not take up new NAFTA deal this year 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.