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Congressional Republicans Unlikely To Act To Counter Trump On Tariffs

Mar 8, 2018
Originally published on March 8, 2018 9:49 pm

Updated at 4:05 p.m. ET

Congress has the power to challenge President Trump on new tariffs, but it's unlikely lawmakers will act, even though nearly all congressional Republicans oppose the president's trade policy because they believe it will harm the U.S. economy.

"It's a conundrum, really, because you do not want 100 senators and our counterparts in the House doing basically any trade initiative. That's why we give that (power) to the executive," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

Like most Senate Republicans, Roberts strongly opposes Trump's decision to impose new tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports, an order he formally signed on Thursday. Lawmakers like Roberts fear retaliation from foreign nations on U.S. exports, and agriculture is primed to take a hit. Specifically, Kansans are concerned about China retaliating on U.S. sorghum exports.

U.S. trade policy has long been written with the intent to give the president broad authority to handle international trade without Congress nitpicking. While lawmakers technically could try to counter Trump on trade with some kind of legislative response, there is no clarity about what that would look like, and what kind of precedent it would set. "This is very difficult, I think, to address by legislation, and it's obvious the president certainly has his mind made up," Roberts said. "They (the administration) truly believe that tariffs is the way to go."

Trump's tariffs have not yet taken effect, and congressional Republicans are hoping to persuade the president to limit their scope or effect. Congressional Republicans are worried that Trump's trade policy will mitigate any economic benefits from their 2017 tax cuts, particularly in a midterm election year when Republicans want to run on a platform of economic success.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, outlined those concerns in a letter to the president released Tuesday. "Put simply, the proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports threaten to undermine that success," Hatch wrote.

Since taking office, no issue has pitted Trump against his allies in Congress more than the tariff dispute has. Party leaders have voiced rare public concern about the president's policies. "There is a lot of concern among Republican senators that this could sort of metastasize into a larger trade war," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters.

Even some of Trump's strongest allies, like conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, oppose the tariffs but concede there is little Congress will do to try to stop them if Trump moves forward with them.

"I don't know that there is a legislative fix that will garner the support in both chambers that will be able to override a veto because that's what would have to happen," said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., "So I'm sure there's going to be bills and co-sponsors, but it would be disingenuous to suggest there will be enough votes to override a veto."

One of those bills is by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. He introduced legislation in January that would amend a 1974 trade law to require the president to get congressional approval before making any major trade policy moves, including imposing new tariffs. The proposal has no co-sponsors, and Republicans have not warmed to the idea of limiting executive powers on trade just yet. "I don't think we're at the point where we need to consider that bill yet," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Other congressional Republicans want to give the president room to negotiate before they entertain any legislative action to counter his efforts. "I don't think we should be going against the president before we see what the deal is. Don't weaken his hand," said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., a Trump ally who is running for the Senate in November. "I'm personally going to wait and see what the president has in mind, what the final deal is."

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The decision to impose tariffs puts President Trump at odds with Republicans on Capitol Hill. GOP lawmakers have the power to challenge Trump on tariffs, but they are unlikely to act even though they believe his decision could harm the U.S. economy. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has this report.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Since taking office, no other issue has pitted President Trump against his allies in Congress more than his tariff decision. Congressional leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are voicing rare public concern about the president's trade policy.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: There is a lot of concern among Republican senators that this could metastasize into a larger trade war.

DAVIS: Senators, including Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, worry about retaliation from trading partners. One potential target is sorghum grain exports, and Roberts' home state of Kansas is the No. 1 producer. But even the strongest tariff critics like Roberts don't anticipate Congress will intervene.

PAT ROBERTS: It's a conundrum really because you do not want a hundred senators and our counterparts in the House doing basically any trade initiative.

DAVIS: Modern U.S. trade policy gives the president broad authority to handle international trade without Congress nitpicking the details, but Congress also hasn't had to confront a president with as strong a protectionist streak as Trump. Here's Roberts again.

ROBERTS: This is very difficult, I think, to address by legislation. And it's obvious the president certainly has his mind made up.

DAVIS: Politically, there is little interest among Republicans to go up against their president in an election year on one of his core beliefs. Trump allies like Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Lou Barletta say skeptical Republicans need to give the president space to try and advance trade policies that Trump promises will ultimately help American workers.

LOU BARLETTA: I don't think we should be going against the president before we see what the deal is. Don't weaken his hand.

DAVIS: Strategically, Republicans also don't have the votes to intervene on trade policy even if they wanted to. North Carolina Republican Congressman Mark Meadows explains.

MARK MEADOWS: I don't know that there is a legislative fix that will garner the support in both chambers to be able to override a veto 'cause that's what it would have to to happen.

DAVIS: And some Republicans already do have proposals to rein in the president on trade. Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee introduced legislation back in January that would require the president to get congressional approval before making any major trade decisions, including imposing new tariffs. No other senators have signed on, and Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt says it's premature to discuss it.

ROY BLUNT: I don't think we're at the point we need to consider that bill yet.

DAVIS: Likewise, in the House, conservatives like North Carolina's Mark Walker say Republicans don't want to limit executive authority on trade just yet.

MARK WALKER: I don't think that we're this - at a point here where we're willing to take a look at that strong of a stance. Obviously we are trying to be consistent that we think most good policy comes on the legislative side as intended by our Founding Fathers - doesn't mean the president doesn't have the authority to weigh in on that.

DAVIS: Republicans like Barletta downplay this ideological rift between the White House and Congress.

BARLETTA: My wife doesn't agree with me all the time, and we love each other.

DAVIS: And in this marriage, Republicans would rather relent on trade than put up a fight. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.