Republican lawmakers hate Trump's trade war, but it's not clear if they'll try to stop it

  • Republican lawmakers are criticizing the Trump administration's tariff policies, which erupted into a full-fledged trade war with China on Friday.
  • But GOP leaders have so far not supported a bill to limit President Donald Trump's ability to impose tariffs, which would likely have to overcome a veto.
  • Trump has threatened more tariffs on China, while the U.S. already faces retaliation from Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
(L-R) Speaker of House Paul Ryan, Senator Orrin Hatch, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill in Washington DC Wednesday September 27, 2017. 
Melina Mara | The Washington Post | Getty Images
(L-R) Speaker of House Paul Ryan, Senator Orrin Hatch, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill in Washington DC Wednesday September 27, 2017. 

Top GOP lawmakers are condemning President Donald Trump's tariffs on major trading partners, which erupted into a full-fledged trade war with China on Friday.

But as Trump threatens more tariffs on Chinese imports and the U.S. exchanges trade broadsides with allies across the globe, it is unclear what action, if any, Republicans in Congress will take to limit potential damage to the U.S. economy.

"I'm not a fan of tariffs," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday, according to the Louisville, Kentucky-based Courier-Journal newspaper. "We've been arguing aggressively that this is the wrong path for us. The president does have the right to do what he's doing. He's not violating current trade policy."

On Friday, U.S. tariffs of 25 percent on $34 billion in Chinese goods such as industrial parts and electronics took effect. Beijing retaliated with corresponding tariffs on $34 billion of products such as soybeans and pork. Trump expects to soon add another $16 billion in tariffs and will consider up to hundreds of billions of dollars more in duties. China is expected to fire back after those moves, as well.

The escalation comes at a delicate time for trade relations. Already, key allies Canada, Mexico and the European Union have levied tariffs on U.S. goods in response to Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The president is also considering duties targeting foreign automobiles and auto parts — a move that many Republicans worry will cause consumers to feel considerable pain.

Numerous GOP lawmakers have warned that the actions combined could harm U.S. companies, raise costs for Americans and reduce the benefits of the tax overhaul that they have touted as a boon for the U.S. Despite the criticism of Trump's policies, Republican leaders so far have not backed a push within the party to limit his ability to impose tariffs. As retribution mounts and lawmakers highlight tangible harm the White House's actions have caused to U.S. companies, the GOP-controlled Congress appears hesitant to intervene, allowing Trump to barrel ahead with his trade policy.

Trump has argued that American companies and workers have long suffered from unfair global trade practices. He says revising free trade deals and imposing tariffs will help to balance the playing field for working-class Americans — a contention many Republicans, Democrats and labor groups agree with, to some extent.

Still, numerous lawmakers argue that Trump has gone too far by taking action against critical U.S. allies and prompting backlash against important industries such as agriculture.

'Nobody wins' in trade wars

On Thursday, as the tariffs on China were set to take effect, McConnell said, "nobody wins" in a trade war. Still, the Kentucky Republican acknowledged that Trump has the authority to impose the tariffs and did not pledge to take any particular action to counteract them.

Retaliatory tariffs have hit close to McConnell's home. Louisville-based Brown-Forman said last month that it would hike prices on whiskeys such as Jack Daniel's in Europe as a result of 25 percent EU tariffs on products including bourbon and motorcycles. Iconic American brand Harley-Davidson has also felt the effects in House Speaker Paul Ryan's home state of Wisconsin. The motorcycle maker announced last month that it would move the production of EU-bound motorcycles overseas due to the duties.

Ryan also criticized the imposition of tariffs last week, saying that the duties are "basically taxes" and that "there are better tools than tariffs increases." He did not say what mechanism he preferred to address unfair trade practices.

Spokespeople for both McConnell and Ryan did not respond to requests to comment Friday on whether they would support congressional action to limit Trump's ability to impose tariffs. But both leaders have cast doubts previously on whether a legislative check on Trump's powers can get through Congress.

Other notable Republicans have repeatedly criticized Trump's trade policy. In a statement Friday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch said, "These tariffs will fall on the backs of American businesses and families," and "China will be harmed as well."

The trade war with China exacerbates the pain felt by consumers because they already face retaliation for the steel and aluminum duties, the Utah Republican said. Hatch called on China to revise its trade practices, but said the tensions limit the Trump administration's ability to negotiate with China.

The White House's trade goals include pushing China to buy more U.S. goods to reduce the trade imbalance between the countries. The Trump administration also wants to discourage the alleged theft of U.S. intellectual property by Chinese companies. Trump believes that securing such commitments will help American companies to thrive and create jobs.

Mitt Romney, a Republican former presidential candidate and the favorite to win the retiring Hatch's Senate seat this year, also said Friday that he is "not a fan of trade wars." He added that he hopes "the new tariffs going into effect today can soon be removed and replaced by a mutually agreeable trade agreement."

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Tariff bill makes little progress

While more Republican senators, including Bob Corker of Tennessee, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, have criticized the White House's tariff policy, the only major legislative effort to check Trump's tariff powers has not really gotten off the ground. The bipartisan measure may never take off, as it faces a likely Trump veto if it makes its way through Congress.

The legislation focuses on the executive branch's ability to impose tariffs for national security reasons under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. Last month, Corker went against Trump's wishes to unveil a bill that would require congressional approval for duties imposed using a national security justification.

Trump used that authority to levy the steel and aluminum tariffs, and could use the same justification to take action against auto imports. However, he did not cite national security when announcing the tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese goods. Bipartisan lawmakers have questioned what national security threat allies such as Canada pose.

GOP senators Toomey, Flake, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah signed on to Corker's bill. On the Democratic side, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Warner of Virginia, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland co-sponsored it.

Still, McConnell has said he will not take up the bill on its own, calling it an "exercise in futility" last month. Ryan also cast doubts last month that the legislation could pass the House and garner enough support to overcome Trump's veto.

Corker has so far failed in attempts to attach the measure to separate must-pass legislation. It is unclear now what other action Congress could take to check Trump aside from the senator's bill.

Still, some senators have indicated they will keep trying to curb the president's ability to impose tariffs. Heitkamp, who lamented Friday that "another step deeper into this trade war" will hurt farmers in her state, committed to pushing to pass legislation.

"I’ll keep working across the aisle with senators from both parties to end the trade war," she said in a tweeted statement.

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