Trade official warns senators of obstacles to quick China deal

The top U.S. trade official told a bipartisan group of senators in a private meeting last week that major sticking points remain in negotiations with China, a sign that it is unlikely the world's two biggest economies will strike a deal before a March 1 deadline.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerChinese, US negotiators fine-tuning details of trade agreement: report The Trump economy keeps roaring ahead Trump says no discussion of extending deadline in Chinese trade talks MORE provided the briefing to members of the Finance Committee, as well as other committees with a stake in implementing trade deals, including the Agriculture, Judiciary, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

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“I got the impression that they’re making some progress and there’s a feeling that there’s negotiations in good faith, but the really big things haven’t been tackled yet,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost The 7 most interesting nuggets from the Mueller report Government report says new NAFTA would have minimal impact on economy MORE (R-Iowa) told The Hill, adding that he did not receive any assurance from Lighthizer that a trade deal would be negotiated before a new round of tariffs take effect at the beginning of next month.

“You kinda conclude that there’s a lot of indication of progress, but then it’s too soon to draw a conclusion,” Grassley said.

Asked if Lighthizer thinks he can get a deal by March 1, Grassley said, “I don’t think I can say yes to that.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg on Mueller report: 'Politically, I'm not sure it will change much' Sarah Sanders addresses false statements detailed in Mueller report: 'A slip of the tongue' Trump to visit Japan in May to meet with Abe, new emperor MORE has threatened to raise tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent if no deal is reached. 

Lighthizer called March 1 a “hard deadline” during a December appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

But on Friday the White House reportedly wavered.

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CNBC cited a White House official saying the March 1 deadline “could change” if the Trump administration thinks there is sufficient progress in the talks.

A U.S. trade delegation is scheduled to travel to China in the upcoming week for another round of negotiations.

The stock market plunged Thursday after it was reported that Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping would not meet again before the deadline.

Senators on Wednesday pressed Lighthizer over their concern about tariffs and the impact on the economy, which has already taken a hit from the 35-day partial government shutdown that ended on Jan. 25.

“If there’s one thing that stood out, it was, ‘Gotta get rid of these tariffs,’” Grassley said of the meeting.

The U.S. trade representative’s office did not respond to an email request for comment.

If higher tariffs go into effect next month, it would set the stage for Senate action on legislation to curb Trump’s future authority on imposing trade penalties.

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP senator wears shirt honoring Otto Warmbier at Korean DMZ On The Money: Conservatives rally behind Moore for Fed | White House interviewing other candidates | Trump, Dems spar on Tax Day | Budget watchdogs bemoan 'debt denialism' The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE (R-Ohio), a member of the Finance Committee, this past week introduced bipartisan legislation that would overhaul the administration’s power to impose tariffs under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.

The legislation would require the Department of Defense, instead of the Commerce Department, to justify the national security basis for invoking Section 232.

“I have repeatedly expressed concerns about the misuse of the Section 232 statute to impose tariffs on automobiles and auto parts, and its impact on Ohio jobs and the U.S. economy as a whole,” Portman said in a statement.

His proposal is co-sponsored by Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay Ernst Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Abrams: Schumer has been 'relentless but thoughtful' about Senate bid MORE (R-Iowa), Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar Alexander Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Five things to know about the measles outbreak MORE (R-Tenn.), Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFive takeaways from Mueller's report Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback MORE (D-Calif.), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerWhy America needs the ability to track enemy missiles from space GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Dems accused of seeking revenge for 2013 vote on hurricane relief MORE (R-Neb.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungGOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Menendez, Rubio lead Senate effort to regulate Venezuelan sanctions Senate GOP proposes constitutional amendment to keep Supreme Court at 9 seats MORE (R-Ind.). 

Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyOvernight 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 Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race MORE (R-Pa.), another influential member of the Finance Committee, has proposed competing legislation that would require the president to win approval from Congress before imposing tariffs or quotas under Section 232.

Toomey said his measure “reasserts Congress’s responsibility in determining whether or not to impose national security based tariffs.”

The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerGOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Hillicon Valley: Trump unveils initiatives to boost 5G | What to know about the Assange case | Pelosi warns tech of 'new era' in regulation | Dem eyes online hate speech bill Warner looking at bills to limit hate speech, have more data portability on social media MORE (D-Va.), Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSenate needs to stand up to Trump's Nixonian view of the Fed GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback The Hill's 12:30 Report: Assange faces US charges after dramatic arrest MORE (R-Neb.) and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanOvernight Health Care: CEO of largest private health insurer slams 'Medicare for All' plans | Dem bill targets youth tobacco use | CVS fined over fake painkiller prescriptions | Trump, first lady to discuss opioid crisis at summit GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Former Democratic aide pleads guilty to doxing GOP senators attending Kavanaugh hearing MORE (D-N.H.).

Grassley said he favors addressing Trump’s tariff authority but has not decided whether to prioritize the Portman or Toomey legislation.

“I’m not going to comment on the Portman bill or the Toomey bill because I haven’t got a consensus yet,” he said. “All I’m going to say is that I’m very much favor of the principle of recapturing some of the constitutional power that Congress gave away in the 1962 legislation.”