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 GrassleyOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Sanders mounts staunch defense of 'Medicare for All' | Biden, Sanders fight over health care heats up | House votes to repeal ObamaCare 'Cadillac Tax' | Dems want details on fetal tissue research ban Senate approves long-delayed tax treaties in win for business The peculiar priorities of Adam Schiff 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 TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis 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 PortmanFighting the opioid epidemic: Congress can't just pass laws, but must also push to enforce them The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Rising number of GOP lawmakers criticize Trump remarks about minority Dems 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 ErnstTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout House Dems, Senate GOP build money edge to protect majorities MORE (R-Iowa), Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Republicans make U-turn on health care Trump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid MORE (R-Tenn.), Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations Hillicon Valley: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency plan | Trump vows to 'take a look' at Google's ties to China | Google denies working with China's military | Tech execs on defensive at antitrust hearing | Bill would bar business with Huawei MORE (D-Calif.), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerOn The Money: Labor secretary under fire over Epstein plea deal | Trump defends Acosta as Dems call for ouster | Biden releases tax returns showing steep rise in income | Tech giants to testify at House antitrust hearing GOP senators decline to criticize Acosta after new Epstein charges The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle MORE (R-Neb.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungHouse votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout GOP chairman introduces bill to force 'comprehensive review' of US-Saudi relationship 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 WarnerTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Senate passes bill making hacking voting systems a federal crime Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency at hearing MORE (D-Va.), Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseAcosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers Some good advice for Democrats to ignore in 2020 Swing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike MORE (R-Neb.) and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanTrump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Key endorsements: A who's who in early states 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.”