US-China trade war spurs unease on Capitol Hill

"The president is right to counter China," one Democratic senator said.

May 14, 2019, 6:51 PM

With the world's two largest economies on the brink of an all-out trade war, President Donald Trump continues to insist that the U.S. is in a better position than China.

Some Democrats acknowledge the president's position but disagree with his approach.

"The president is right to counter China," Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said Tuesday. "We're worried about the Chinese undercutting American industries. We're worried about Chinese thefts of intellectual properties."

But even though Democrats like Kaine are backing the president in theory, they are slamming his execution.

"His instinct isn't wrong, but what he's doing to solve the problem is actually only most painful for Americans, not the Chinese," Kaine added.

PHOTO: Sen. Mark Warner asks questions during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 25, 2018.
Sen. Mark Warner asks questions during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 25, 2018.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP, FILE

"I think it's appropriate that Trump administration has said the status quo with China is not working," Virginia's other Democratic senator, Mark Warner, said.

"But my fear is that this president is so anxious to claim a victory that he may sacrifice the long-term interests of our country to claim a short term political victory," he added.

Both Kaine and Warner have previously raised concerns about how Trump's ongoing trade war could hurt Virginia businesses and families. According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, China is Virginia’s number one agricultural export market for soybeans.

In 2018, Virginia exported more than $58 million soybean products to China – an 83 percent decrease from 2017, according to a joint press release from the senators.

President Trump downplayed the escalating trade war with China in comments to reporters earlier on Tuesday, labeling the conflict as a "little squabble."

"We're having a little squabble with China because we've been treated very unfairly for many, many decades -- for, actually, a long time. And it should have been handled a long time ago, and it wasn't. And we'll handle it now," Trump said.

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, by far one of the loudest voices in the Democratic Party in recent years to support strong actions against China, slammed Trump for botching his handling of the trade negotiations.

"I'm very concerned that the president has not understood that the tariffs need to be a short term tool to get to a long term policy," Brown said. "He seems to think that tariffs are the policy, and that undercuts American agriculture, it also hurts the supply chain and manufacturing."

When asked by ABC News if Trump is telling the truth when he says China will bear the cost of the trade war, "He makes that up," Brown replied.

"It's another one of the Trump lies when he says 'China pays for this.' American consumers are paying, American farmers are paying, American companies are paying and especially American workers are paying," Brown said.

"The reality is that just because Donald Trump says something is true or wants something to be true doesn't mean it's true," Warner said. "Even the president's trade adviser Larry Kudlow has acknowledged that when the president slaps these tariffs on, the American consumer pays a higher price."

PHOTO: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer looks on during a press conference after the Democratic weekly policy lunch at the Capitol, May 14, 2019.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer looks on during a press conference after the Democratic weekly policy lunch at the Capitol, May 14, 2019.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

But Trump is receiving rare praise from the Senate's top Democrat.

"We have to have tough strong policies against China or they'll continue to steal millions of American jobs and trillions of American dollars...we ought to all be united and aimed at China," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday.

"I think if we're really strong and tough against China and the president takes my advice...we will come to a very good solution and very quickly," Schumer said. "I hope he doesn't back out and come up with a weak solution because China is going to continue to hurt us, over and over again."

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans, who have traditionally opposed imposing tariffs, are grudgingly supporting the president on his current trade policy.

"What the president's doing is using tariffs as a tool to get them to change the behavior that leads to them cheating us out of market share," GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said. "Somebody should have done this 30 years ago. And I'll stand behind the president."

But they admit they are concerned that the president's positioning is hurting American consumers and the farming community across the US.

"Nobody wins a trade war and we're all hoping, as others have suggested here, that these tactics get us into a better position vis-a-vis China, which has been our worst and most unfair trading relationship for a very long time," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday during a press conference.

When he was asked explicitly if tariffs are taxes paid by American consumers, contrary to what the president has been suggesting in recent days: "As I said, ultimately nobody wins a trade war unless there is an agreement at the end after which tariffs go away. Hopefully these tactics will lead us to that day, and if it does, I think it'll be a winner for both sides," McConnell said.

Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley says farmers will be the first to feel the effects of the ongoing trade dispute, but he thinks the tariffs on Chinese imports will send a strong message, and said China should stop acting like a "third rate country."

"I'm concerned very much," Grassley said on what the tariffs might mean for the farmers he represents. "But in the end, we all ought to be concerned about China violating every rule of trade that they could violate...there isn't a single farmer in the United States that thinks it's OK for China to steal that and our trade secrets and manipulate their currency."

GOP Sen. Jon Thune of South Dakota was asked if he agrees with the president in that China will be bearing the cost of the tariffs, and not the U.S. consumer.

"It has an impact, a lot of, obviously, the costs get passed on to the consumers, there are impacts there," Thune replied. "There are clearly impacts on the [agriculture] economy and we're feeling that in farm country."

He added: "I don't think anybody wins trade wars." But he go on to suggest the tariffs might be an additional pressure that will have the "desired effect" in bringing China back to the negotiating table.

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