Senate Republicans say they would be more aggressive in tying President Donald Trump’s hands when it comes to imposing tariffs on allies if he were not in the middle of trade negotiations with some of those same allies.
They said an effort led by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to weaken the president’s ability to unilaterally penalize trade partners might be more successful sometime after this weekend’s G7 meeting, where Trump is expected to come face-to-face with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has sharply criticized the administration for its new tariffs on steel and aluminum.
For now, lawmakers might be skeptical about Trump’s use of a tariff action that’s only supposed to be used for legitimate national security concerns, but they are more focused on his having a strong position in the ongoing talks.
“I think in the long term it would be good but do we need it absolutely now? I do not want to take leverage away from President Trump as he’s negotiating,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who said he agrees with Corker on the merits, told ABC.
Corker’s bill, introduced Wednesday, would require Congress’ approval for any tariffs imposed under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which is only supposed to be applied when the United States have national security concerns with the country it wants to penalize. Congress would have 60 days to approve such proposals by a 60-vote supermajority, or else the tariff proposal would die. Corker’s bill would apply retroactively to the recent tariffs Trump has imposed.
In early March, the president announced a 25 percent tariff on steel and 10 percent tariff on aluminum. The administration temporarily exempted Mexico, Canada and the EU from the tariffs but last week announced it would remove those exemptions.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has slammed the tariffs and, in a call last month, reportedly questioned how tariffs could be imposed on Canada, the close U.S. ally and neighbor, on the basis of national security.
As the two countries feud, they are, along with Mexico, also in the midst of discussions to renegotiate the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Senate Republicans say they don’t want to consider Corker’s bill right now because they don’t want to tie his hands in the middle of these current talks, even if they think Trump is using the national security justification too liberally.
“Intellectually, I agree with Bob Corker. This law has been used for a long time; it’s never been used this aggressively. But my goal is to give the president space so he can try to get better deals,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was one of a handful of Senate Republicans who met with President Trump Wednesday to talk trade, said.
Johnson, who was also at the meeting, said the president spent two hours with the lawmakers yesterday giving them greater insight into what he’s trying to do.
“He makes some pretty darn good arguments about bilateral agreements, why he needs the leverage,” Johnson said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said during an interview with SiriusXM Wednesday that trying to rein in the president’s tariff authority was an “exercise in futility” and has said senators should focus on trying to convince Trump not to go too far in imposing tariffs, seeming to signal that he wouldn't support the bill even if it were brought up at a later time.
But not all of his conference agrees. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that the bill “appears to be a limited, reasonable response” because it would only be for tariffs related to national security concerns.
And other Republicans are worried Trump is spending too much time making flimsy national security arguments and not enough time focused on legitimate national security threats like Chinese telecom ZTE, which the Pentagon and intelligence community have long maintained poses a national security threat because it can use its devices as surveillance tools.
The Commerce Department Thursday announced that it had finalized a deal to lift a seven-year ban on ZTE buying American goods, which had already significantly hurt its business. In exchange, ZTE will pay a fine and install an American-run compliance board. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross argued this morning that the new deal is even more effective than the original one, but many lawmakers disagree.
But Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he is working on legislative solutions to roll back the ZTE agreement.
“I certainly think ZTE is a bigger national security threat than steel from Argentina. Hopefully, there’s a chance in direction on that,” Rubio told ABC.