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Congressional Republicans Struggle To Push Back On Trump's Tariffs

Jul 13, 2018
Originally published on July 13, 2018 11:16 am

Congressional Republicans are growing increasingly worried that President Trump is on the verge of a trade war with China. But they're also realizing there is almost nothing they can do to stop him.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., put it bluntly during an event at The Economic Club of Washington on Thursday.

"You would have to pass a law to say don't raise those tariffs and the president would have to sign that law," Ryan said. "That's not going to happen."

Republicans were already worried that allies like the European Union, Canada and Mexico have begun to retaliate for U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Now they say they fear even more blowback as the Trump administration imposed another $200 billion in tariffs on goods from China.

The Senate voted 88-11 to constrain presidential authority to use national security as justification for taxing foreign goods, but the measure was nonbinding. While some in Congress are agitating for even stronger responses, most admit there is virtually nothing they can do to stop Trump from waging a trade war.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., one of three Republican co-sponsors of the Senate measure, says he is frustrated that the White House seems to lack a strategic, long-term policy for addressing legitimate imbalances with trading partners.

"It's just ham-handed, it lacks any degree of coherency," Corker said. "What I do know is that Americans are being hurt by the fact that there is no coherent policy here."

Unlike Corker, who is retiring at the end of this year, many Republicans worry that the trade fight could have a serious impact on their re-election chances in November. A growing economy and the success of last year's tax cuts are two centerpieces of GOP campaigns across the country.

But even some former Trump administration officials say tariffs could reverse any new economic growth. Gary Cohn, Trump's former National Economic Council director, warned last month that a trade war could wipe out any gains created by the tax cuts.

"If you end up with a tariff battle, you will end up with price inflation, and you could end up with consumer debt," Cohn said at a Washington Post event in June. "Those are all historic ingredients for an economic slowdown."

Corker and his co-sponsors say they want to introduce a binding version of their bill that would give Congress final say over national security tariffs, but Senate leaders are skeptical. The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, told reporters on Thursday that Trump doesn't want Congress to tie his hands in trade negotiations.

"Many of us don't really see the benefit of getting into a big public fight with the president over this issue," Cornyn said. "There are other ways we can handle it, I think, that would make the point."

But it isn't clear what those other ways might be. Some legislators, like Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, have suggested that companies could apply for waivers that would exempt goods they import from some of the tariffs.

"The best thing we can do is to work with the administration to try to go through the exceptions process," Flores said. "Make sure that those are heard quickly."

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told members of the Senate Finance Committee last month that the department had already received about 20,000 requests for exemption from the steel and aluminum tariffs. At the time of his testimony, the Commerce Department had granted 42 waivers and denied 56 — meaning less than one half of 1 percent of the applications had been processed.

Still, some Trump allies say companies, and other Republicans, should be patient. New York Rep. Chris Collins, an early Trump supporter, said he is getting calls from apple growers and manufacturers in his state who are worried that the tariffs could hurt their bottom line.

But, he said, he is telling them to hold on and be patient.

"You don't win a war overnight," Collins said. "We've been in the war, the battle, for trade for a long time. We've been losing that battle, and all of a sudden, we have a president who is standing up for America and it's noisy."

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Republicans in Congress are increasingly worried that President Trump seems set on waging a trade war with countries across the globe. The Trump administration has slapped tariffs on Chinese goods and on products from close allies in the EU and Canada. Congressional Republicans are worried that escalating a trade war could harm the U.S. economy right before the crucial midterm elections. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan criticized the tariffs several times this week.


PAUL RYAN: I don't want to hamstring the president's negotiating tactics, but I've long said I don't think tariffs are the right way to go.

GREENE: NPR's Kelsey Snell covers Congress, and she joins us to talk about this. Hi, Kelsey.


GREENE: So how many Republicans agree with Ryan that these tariffs are the wrong way to, you know, do things like get China to even the playing field on trade, as President Trump talks about?

SNELL: Actually, nearly all of the Republicans that I talked to over the past couple of days agree with Paul Ryan. They say that they would like to have other ways of addressing tariffs or trade imbalances. They think there are more targeted ways to get our trading partners to allow our goods to get into their countries a little bit easier. Actually, this is one of those weird things where it's actually Rust-Belt Democrats who tend to agree with Trump, not people in his own party. It kind of scrambles those normal allies...


SNELL: ...That we would expect. And, you know, people up on the Hill tell me that they want to do something to give Congress some more power over this. Take retiring Senator Bob Corker. He's introduced at least three different ways to try - to rollbacks on Trump's tariff power. This is what he said.


BOB CORKER: It's just ham-handed. It lacks any degree of coherency.

SNELL: Yeah, so he's pretty frustrated. He was telling anybody who would listen that there is something that Congress can do and should do. Just a matter of, will they?

GREENE: I mean, such a weird political dynamic, I mean, since Republicans, you know, have the leadership in Congress but are feeling like what they really can't do that much?

SNELL: Right. There isn't really all that much they can do because, as Speaker Ryan and a lot of other Republicans said, what it would take is an act of Congress. And Congress would have to say that - 'cause to be clear, Congress in the Constitution has the ability to levy tariffs. But over time that power has been given over to the president. And so Congress would have to pass a law to take that power back. And Texas Congressman Bill Flores is one of those people who is really worried about the tariffs. But he was pretty blunt when I asked him if he thought Congress has much of a chance of reclaiming some of their power.


BILL FLORES: It'd take legislation. Of course, if I were the president, I would veto it.

SNELL: (Laughter).

GREENE: Wow. This is quite a moment for the Republican Party - I mean, hoping to go into this fall, hang on to both houses of Congress. Probably not what they would have wanted at all to be an open disagreement with the president.

SNELL: Right, because most of the Republicans out there running for re-election are running on a message that the economy is doing well. They're pointing at low unemployment numbers. They're talking about big growth. And they're saying it all came from - well, not all - but largely came from those tax cuts that passed at the end of last year. And now they're worried that a big trade war would wipe out all of those gains.

GREENE: Can I just ask you about another story on Capitol Hill this week? You had FBI agent Peter Strzok, who's faced this withering criticism of his handling of the investigations into Hillary Clinton and also President Trump, actually testifying. So many questions about what this could mean for the Mueller investigation. I mean, how did this go?

SNELL: Well, he was up there for about 10 hours.


SNELL: And it was explosive. It was a day full of shouting and frustration. And it was an extremely partisan exercise. It turned into almost personal at points. Congressman Louie Gohmert was asking him questions, and it got really heated. I think we have a little bit of sound of that.


LOUIE GOHMERT: And I've talked to FBI agents around the country. You've embarrassed them. You've embarrassed yourself. And I can't help but wonder when I see you looking there with a little smirk, how many times did you look so innocent into your wife's eye and lie to her about...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mr. Chairman, this is outrageous.

GREENE: My goodness.

SNELL: Yeah. So that was maybe one of the most heated moments. But there was a lot of that going on. It was a big political show.

GREENE: NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell joining us this morning. Kelsey, have a good weekend, and thanks.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.