Senate Republicans are under intense White House pressure to quash a bipartisan attempt to curtail President Donald Trump’s authority to impose tariffs on national security grounds, as he did last week when he slapped duties on steel and aluminum imports from some of the U.S.’s closest allies.
Trump summoned 13 GOP senators to the Oval Office for a late-afternoon meeting Wednesday that lasted two hours, seeking allies in an effort to push back against proposed legislation that would require the president to get congressional approval for such tariffs. The president made a personal appeal to the lawmakers block the proposal from going forward, according to two people present at the meeting.
That may be enough to stop the effort.
South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, said in a statement afterward that, "Now is not the time to undercut President Trump’s ability to negotiate better trade deals. I will not support any efforts that weaken his position."
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated he doesn’t want to bind the president, even as he has concerns about the impact of tariffs on his home state of Kentucky. “I don’t think we need to be trying to rein in the president through legislation,” he said Wednesday on SiriusXM’s “The Big Picture.” Instead, he said, he favors trying to persuade the president change course.
Authors of the legislation, including GOP Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, say Trump abused the authority granted under a 1962 law last week because there wasn’t a genuine national security threat. They are joined on the bill by at least 10 other senators, and Corker said Wednesday they may attempt to attach it to an annual defense bill under consideration this week in the Senate.
Corker said Trump called him Tuesday to discuss the proposal, adding that he made no commitment to back off.
'He Opposes It'
“He doesn’t support the legislation, he opposes it,” Corker said. “At the same time, I was able to talk with him about why I felt it was necessary."
The effort underscores the growing unease among free-trade lawmakers in both parties as the president continues to take punitive steps against trade partners he says are giving America a raw deal, including Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
Senators who attended the White House meeting included some members of the GOP leadership team, including Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri and Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming. Some critics of his recent trade moves also were there, including farm-state Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Johnson is a co-sponsor of the new bill.
Corker acknowledged that an attempt to add the legislation to a defense measure may fail. It could be subject to a parliamentary challenge over whether it’s germane to the annual bill authorizing defense programs. Also, all 100 senators would have to agree to let it get a vote -- a particularly tall order since Trump’s opposition hints at a potential veto and the defense measure has broad backing.
Chamber of Commerce
Still, the legislation is picking up support from one of the Republican Party’s chief constituencies, the business community. The National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said they back the congressional review proposal.
Neil Bradley, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, said the business community is “profoundly concerned” that the new tariffs will spark retaliatory measures in coming weeks that will cost American jobs.
“The constitutional authority of the Congress to ‘regulate foreign trade’ and its oversight of tariff policy is unambiguous,” Bradley said in a statement. “This modest proposal to clarify congressional prerogatives is welcome and long overdue.”
Several lawmakers have said justifying tariffs on national security grounds was hurting U.S. credibility and inviting retaliation that would hurt an otherwise solid economy. Mexico, for instance, is imposing a 20% tariff on U.S. agricultural products including apples and 25% duties on Tennessee whiskey in response to Trump’s trade policies.
No Sign of Softening Stance
The proposal by Corker and Heitkamp would require congressional approval of new tariffs that invoke national security interests within 60 days of submission. It would affect not only future actions, but any taken within the last two years. Besides Corker and Johnson, Republicans who have signed on include Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Mike Lee of Utah, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Johnny Isakson of Georgia.
Democratic co-sponsors include Mark Warner of Virginia, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
Trump gave no indication Wednesday he would soften his stance.
“We have the worst trade deals ever made and we’re going to have now fair trade deals,” he said at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters. “I could go deal after deal and it’s been very unfair to our country, to our workers, to our companies and to everybody else involved. And we’re changing them around rapidly.”
By Laura Litvan and Jenny Leonard