Despite Rancor On Tariffs, Senate GOP Rejects Legislative Response

What started off as a war cry has been reduced to a whimper

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says nullifying tariffs on imported steel and aluminum imposed by the president isn't in the cards for his chamber. Also pictured, from right, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says nullifying tariffs on imported steel and aluminum imposed by the president isn't in the cards for his chamber. Also pictured, from right, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 13, 2018 at 4:16pm

Senate Republicans, after decrying President Donald Trump’s recently announced tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, have no plans to pursue legislation to block them from going into effect.

“The thought that the president would undo action he’s taken strikes me as remote at best and I’d like to use floor time in the Senate for things that actually have a chance to become law,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll be dealing with that in a legislative way.”

Senators are now anticipating oversight hearings on the decision, and plan to work with the White House to try to exempt certain countries from the tariffs and narrow their application. Legal experts and Republican leaders say such an approach could do little to curb the importation of steel and aluminum products from “bad actor” countries such as China.

And as companies scramble to understand the impact of the announcement and fears grow that other countries will pursue retaliatory tariffs, an increasingly chaotic environment at the White House — including Tuesday’s firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — could stymie the implementation of the duties and exacerbate the existing uncertainty in the global trade market.

The episode has also stoked fear among some in the GOP conference that Trump, who moved forward with the tariff announcement amid intense pushback from Republicans, will approach the negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement in the same manner and ignore any input from Congress.

Tussle over trade

While Senate Republicans have, by and large, avoided commenting on some of Trump and his administration’s more controversial actions, trade is one policy area where leadership and rank-and-file members alike have no qualms in publicly splitting with the White House.

The import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum have met with widespread opposition from GOP senators. Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, whose committee has jurisdiction over trade issues, called the decision a “tax hike on American manufacturers, workers and consumers.”

But passing legislation to nullify the tariffs is no easy task, given that the measure would eventually need Trump’s signature. Any standalone bill would almost certainly get vetoed, and it is unlikely that Republicans in both chambers could gather enough support to override it. Such a provision could also be included in the pending fiscal 2018 spending legislation, but members are hesitant to risk a possible government shutdown should Trump reject the eventual omnibus bill.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm towards legislation. It doesn’t mean that it can’t happen,” Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski said.

Despite controlling the floor schedule and having a majority in the chamber, some GOP senators put the blame on Democrats for the muted response.

“To pass it takes 60 votes and there aren’t nine Democrats. I would love to see Congress act to protect free trade, but doing so would face an almost inevitable Democratic filibuster,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, speaking Tuesday on the chamber floor, called the tariffs an “example of how the administration has the right instinct but bad execution.”

“Tariffs, properly calibrated, could be an effective tool to rein in China,” the New York Democrat said. “Putting Canada in the same boat as China is a huge mistake. And that’s why these tariffs — I support the thrust of them — should have been more selectively targeted.”

Diplomacy over legislation

Some GOP members, however, are eager to push forward a legislative response. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is no White House ally and is retiring at the end of this term, introduced legislation Monday to nullify the tariffs.

But such a measure would be unlikely to gain momentum at this juncture. Members instead are now hoping to work with Trump to exempt specific countries from the new tariffs.

“What we are trying to do is make sure that it’s more surgical,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said.

But such an approach could lead to international confusion and undermine the intent of the tariffs.

“There’s a serious concern that any countries that are exempted will just serve as loopholes for evasion by other countries,” said Timothy Brightbill, an international trade lawyer and partner with law firm Wiley Rein. “Exempting some countries would mean that Chinese steel finds a way through transshipment or manufacturing to come here in a different form.”

One tactic Trump may pursue, according to an Associated Press report, is to tie potential exclusions from the tariffs to additional funding from NATO allies.

“If we’re in NATO, he wants to make sure that NATO gets more money so that NATO can protect all of us and fulfill its goal,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC last week, adding that Trump may exempt other countries in the next two weeks.

To date, only Mexico and Canada would be exempt from the tariffs. The Trump administration is currently in the middle of negotiations with those two countries to overhaul NAFTA.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, whose panel would have oversight over NATO issues, said he had not spoken to the administration about that proposal.

Other senators expressed openness to the idea.

“This is a world where our foreign aid has never really been appreciated,” Georgia Republican David Perdue said. “That, combined with our trade, is a big deal.”