Senate GOPers Are Sweating, But Likely Won’t Act, As Trump Threatens Trade War

on February 28, 2018 in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: U.S. U.S. President Donald Trump listens to Vice President Mike Pence during a meeting with bipartisan members of the Congress at the Cabinet Room of the White House February 28, 2018 i... WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: U.S. U.S. President Donald Trump listens to Vice President Mike Pence during a meeting with bipartisan members of the Congress at the Cabinet Room of the White House February 28, 2018 in Washington, DC. President Trump held a meeting with lawmakers to discuss school and community safety. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) MORE LESS
March 6, 2018 4:14 p.m.

President Trump’s seeming declaration of a protectionist trade war, which already has ally nations threatening retaliation, has Republicans on Capitol Hill in a sweat.

But while some are agitating for the passage of a bill that would curtail the White House’s power on trade, others say the caucus lacks the political will to openly defy the President. Instead, most GOP lawmakers are urging their pro-free trade allies in the administration to coax Trump back from the ledge, and are crossing their fingers that the famously flexible President changes his mind so no action on their part is necessary.

“I think we ought to look, going forward, at what a President can do and we maybe ought to define or box him in,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told reporters Tuesday. “But I seriously question whether you’ll have enough Republican senators who want to cross the President in this way.”

A bill introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) would require the White House to seek congressional approval for any unilateral trade actions, such as the tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum recently threatened by Trump. But the legislation has been stuck in committee for more than a year, and despite near-unilateral opposition among Republican lawmakers to Trump’s move, they say it’s unlikely to be revived any time soon.

“I think it’s unfortunate that Congress has ceded way too much authority to the President when it comes to tariffs,” complained Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) on Tuesday, telling reporters that the topic did not even come up during the caucus’ weekly policy luncheon. “We should take back some of these constitutional powers that Congress has willingly given away. These types of decisions should come before Congress to be ratified.”

But of Lee’s bill, Johnson said he’s “not sure we’d even have enough votes to pass it,” let alone override a potential presidential veto.

Johnson and other Republicans suggested Tuesday that Trump is acting out of ignorance of the intricacies of global trade.

“I come from a manufacturing background. I understand the difficult nature of setting up these supply relationships, and I realize it’s a global economy,” Johnson said. “As a developer, maybe he doesn’t have that same level of experience with supply chains. Maybe he doesn’t understand how fully disruptive this just might be.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) made similar comments, telling reporters: “I think the steel and aluminum tariffs are a well-intentioned idea but a bad one.”

“President Bush proved that in 2002 when he put them on, and it cost more jobs than it saved,” he noted. “It backfired, and within a year, he removed the tariffs.”

Flake, who was part of a congressional delegation that lobbied Trump in December to preserve NAFTA, told TPM that both Trump and U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer hold “completely and utterly irrational” views on trade deficits.

“Look at Mexico, for example,” he said. “Mexico spends 25 percent of its GDP to buy our goods. We spend one half of one percent of our GDP to buy Mexican goods. We have a trade deficit of about 60 billion dollars, but who cares? Why are we fixated on that? What’s not to like? But those arguments aren’t getting very far with him.”

Flake said he thought at first that they were getting through to Trump in that meeting, before a moment arrived that he felt revealed the White House’s “naïveté” on both the mechanics of trade and the political dynamics in Congress.

“The question was, should we exit NAFTA to get a better deal and then get back in?” Flake recalled. “His notion was, since so many Democrats and Republicans are pushing us not to get out of NAFTA, then they would surely vote for NAFTA 2.0. All seven of us, almost in unison, said, ‘That’s crazy!'”

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. at a committee hearing on “Oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice” on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Most Republican lawmakers who spoke to TPM shared concerns about Trump’s proposed tariffs, but insisted that the famously indecisive President will likely change his mind in the weeks to come.

“I think it’ll be modified somewhat,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) told reporters.

Exiting Tuesday’s GOP luncheon, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) insisted to TPM that rather than truly threatening a trade war, Trump is “having a coffee klatch conversation with the American public.”

“He’s put his boots up on the table and said, ‘Whaddya think if I do this?’ But you haven’t seen anything in action yet,” he said. “I think he’s contemplating what the effects would be.”

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) agreed, telling TPM: “The president is listening to a number of sides and that’s what he ought to do.”

Even some of the loudest critics of the potential tariffs, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), say there’s no need for Congress to act preemptively. “I just want to wait and see what he does. I’m hoping he will reassess the solution,” he said.

But just a few hours after lawmakers insisted that Trump will back down on his tariff threats, the President doubled down in a press conference with the Swedish Prime Minister.

“Trade wars aren’t so bad,” he said.

Several lawmakers noted Tuesday that while Trump has been known to flip-flop on immigration, health care, budget cuts and an array of other issues, he has been consistent for decades in his protectionist trade views.

“He keeps coming back like a homing pigeon on trade deficits,” Flake said. “The President has very few, it seems, entrenched principles. But there are things he comes back to again and again, and trade deficits is one of them.”

“This is just the beginning of this battle. It’s not the end,” added Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who says he has been “speaking out, trying to get the President to reconsider.”

“I don’t think trade wars are a good thing for our country. If we get into a tit-for-tat retaliation, it could be bad for businesses and bad for my state—raising the price of Coca Cola cans, Lockheed airplanes, and just about every other product you can imagine.”

Asked by TPM if he’s hoping Trump changes his mind, Isakson quipped, “That would make it easier than what we might have to do otherwise.”

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