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 LighthizerGOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' Pelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 Pelosi sounds hopeful on new NAFTA deal despite tensions with White House 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 GrassleyErnst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Overnight Health Care: Nevada union won't endorse before caucuses after 'Medicare for All' scrap | McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills | CDC confirms 15th US coronavirus case Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law 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 TrumpCensus Bureau spends millions on ad campaign to mitigate fears on excluded citizenship question Bloomberg campaign: Primary is two-way race with Sanders Democratic senator meets with Iranian foreign minister 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 senators offering bill to cement business provision in Trump tax law Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law Bipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to combat cyberattacks on state and local governments 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 ErnstErnst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Progressive group backs Senate candidates in Georgia, Iowa Democrats seek to drive wedge between Trump, GOP on whistleblowers MORE (R-Iowa), Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDemocrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' MORE (R-Tenn.), Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHouse passes bipartisan bill to create women's history museum Democrats bullish on bill to create women's history museum: 'It's an election year' What the impeachment vote looked like from inside the chamber MORE (D-Calif.), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerLoeffler works to gain traction with conservatives amid Collins primary bid Bolton upends Trump impeachment trial  The Hill's Morning Report — Impeachment unknowns await returning lawmakers MORE (R-Neb.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump's Iran war powers MORE (R-Ind.). 

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.), 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 WarnerSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony US prosecutors bring new charges against China's Huawei Lawmakers grill Census Bureau officials after report on cybersecurity issues MORE (D-Va.), Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseOvernight Health Care: Nevada union won't endorse before caucuses after 'Medicare for All' scrap | McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills | CDC confirms 15th US coronavirus case McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills Behind the scenes of McConnell's impeachment drama MORE (R-Neb.) and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanDemocratic senators ask FDA to ban device used to shock disabled students State officials press Congress for more resources to fight cyberattacks Sanders says NH Democratic senators were wrong to back Trump's USMCA 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.”