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Jeff Flake’s Move to Counter Trump a Lonely Affair

Even critics of Trump trade agenda not on board with holding up judge

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has stalled consideration of a judicial nominee over his concerns about the administration's trade agenda. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has stalled consideration of a judicial nominee over his concerns about the administration's trade agenda. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As if to answer critics questioning whether he would ever take concrete steps to stand up to President Donald Trump, retiring Sen. Jeff Flake is attempting to force action to counter the administration’s actions on tariffs. But the Arizona Republican may be standing alone.

“I do think that unless we can actually do something other than just approving the president’s executive calendar, his nominees, judges, that we have no reason to be there,” Flake said Sunday. “So I think myself and a number of senators, at least a few of us, will stand up and say let’s not move any more judges until we get a vote, for example, on tariffs.” 

Flake’s comments on ABC’s “This Week” confirmed that his procedural maneuvers to stall Judiciary Committee action on the nomination of Britt Grant to be an 11th Circuit judge were tied to breaking the blockade on legislation by Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker that would give Congress a say on national security tariffs implemented under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.

“The European Union exporting cars to the U.S. does not represent a national security threat,” Flake said, distilling the debate about how the law is being applied by the Commerce Department.

Flake is the Republican senator most directly seeking to use his legislative leverage to advance a rebuttal of the Trump administration’s trade agenda, but it wasn’t clear Monday that his particular strategy had much in the way of support — even from colleagues who share Flake’s concerns. 

Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, an ardent advocate for free trade, is decidedly not on board with Flake’s procedural maneuvering.

Watch: Corker Chastises Fellow Republicans for Blocking His Tariff Amendment

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“I am not holding up judicial nominees for that purpose,” Toomey said. “It is very important to me that we get a vote, and I think we’re going to get a vote.”

Asked about when the Corker-led legislation or a similar measure might get a shot at being considered on the Senate floor, Toomey was not sure. He also did not speculate on whether it could come as part of amendment debate on the farm bill — the sweeping reauthorization of agricultural programs that is on the floor ahead of the July Fourth recess.

“It’s also important to me that we confirm good judicial nominees,” Toomey told reporters Monday evening.

Toomey said there had been some preliminary conversations about addressing Trump’s use of Section 232 authority, which took place most notably with tariffs being announced on imported steel and aluminum, through the Finance Committee.

That echoed what Majority Whip John Cornyn told reporters earlier Monday.

The Texas Republican said the first step should be a Finance Committee hearing on the history of past applications of executive branch authority under Section 232.

“My preference would be that the trade issues be handled in the Finance Committee. I’ve been meeting with my staff, and we’re trying to come up with a consensus approach,” Cornyn said. “I think rather than offering those amendments on the floor on unrelated legislation, it’s better to have the Finance Committee, which has primary jurisdiction, take that up.”

Cornyn said he understands the concerns of some Republican colleagues who think the Trump administration is using the authorities for “economic protectionism” rather than to address actual threats.

“Part of the problem is the national security designation is pretty malleable and pretty subjective,” he said.

Of course, not everyone within the Senate Republican Conference takes that point of view. Some senators are more willing than others to give Trump breathing space to try to negotiate trade pacts.

That group features Georgia GOP Sen. David Perdue.

“I’m tired of senators trying to undercut President Trump at every turn, especially in the middle of a negotiating process,” Perdue said on the Senate floor as part of the trade debate during consideration of the fiscal 2019 defense authorization earlier this month.

Flake’s first tactical strike on judicial nominations has, apparently by coincidence, had the effect of slowing the processing of a nominee from Perdue’s home state.

“It is outrageous to me that another U.S. senator can hold up a circuit court judge of Britt Grant’s caliber over something totally unrelated to her qualifications,” Perdue told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

So far, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is not terribly concerned about Flake’s move.

“Judges are a high priority for me. So far any actions he has taken haven’t inhibited any of our activity, but I suppose at some point it would,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said. “Right now, I think that I’m interested in moving these judges, but I also have respect for what he wants to do.”

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