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GOP senators hope Trump is bluffing on Mexico tariffs so they don't have to block them

Key Points
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP caucus hope Trump will back down from threatened tariffs on Mexico.
  • If not, Republicans may have to decide whether to vote to block the duties, which lawmakers worry will damage the U.S. economy.
  • Trump says it would be "foolish" for Republicans to try to block the tariffs.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, center, Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, right, and Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, listen to a question during a news conference after a weekly conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, May 21, 2019.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Republicans hope President Donald Trump will back off his threatened tariffs on Mexico before he forces lawmakers into another public confrontation.

GOP senators have broadly signaled they oppose the 5% duties on all Mexican imports, which would take effect on Monday. If Trump follows through on the tariffs — a move that could harm the U.S. economy and hurt border state senators politically — Republicans may have to vote for a second time this year to oppose a flex of executive power by the president.

After a lunch Tuesday during which GOP senators spoke to White House officials about the tariff strategy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, "There is not much support in my conference for tariffs, that's for sure." But the Kentucky Republican hopes Trump will stand down before his caucus has to decide whether to rebuke the president.

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Some GOP senators concerned about tariffs

"Our hope is that the tariffs will be avoided and we won't have to answer any hypotheticals such as you suggest," McConnell said when a reporter asked if the Senate would vote on a resolution to block the tariffs. As Trump is expected to use executive emergency powers to implement the duties, Congress could try to vote to block them — as lawmakers did earlier this year when Trump declared a national emergency to secure money for his proposed border wall.

The latest protectionist move from the Republican president has left a party that traditionally backs free trade scrambling to decide how to respond. Many members of the GOP-held Senate believe tariffs on Mexico will derail a strong U.S. economy. But the same lawmakers do not want to run afoul of a president who has shown willingness to eviscerate Republicans who disagree with him.

After the lunch Tuesday, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told reporters that Trump should not expect as much support for the tariffs as the GOP gave him the last time he declared a national emergency. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, added that he worried the duties would damage Texas' economy.

"If the outcome of this game of chicken is massive new tariffs that destroy jobs in Texas and across America that would be a terrible outcome," he said.

Sixty-seven senators would need to vote to block the tariffs to make a veto-proof majority. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate. If all Democrats and independents who caucus with them vote to reject the duties, 20 GOP senators would have to join them.

Asked Tuesday about the possible outcome of a vote, Senate Majority Whip John Thune said, "We don't know; this is all very hypothetical at this point." The South Dakota Republican said tariffs are a "hard sell" for the president and added that the situation "has a different feel to it than the last time" Trump declared a national emergency.

Tough choices

Mexico is America's third-largest trading partner. The damage from tariffs on Mexican imports would only widen throughout the year, as the duties will rise to 25% by October.

Cruz's fellow senator from Texas, Republican John Cornyn, and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., could face particularly tough choices if Trump imposes the duties. Both senators will run to keep their seats next year in states heavily reliant on Mexican imports.

Other senators hope they can convince Trump to abandon the tariffs before they take effect. Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican up for reelection next year, said Tuesday that "if we can dissuade the president, I'd like to do that."

Trump has gone through with tariffs on major trading partners before, even when lawmakers and market watchers thought he would not. And at least one Republican Trump ally thinks the president is not bluffing.

"I spoke to the president on Sunday about this, at length," Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said Tuesday, according to Bloomberg News. "The president is dug in. He's as serious as four heart attacks and a stroke."

Not only McConnell and the Republican caucus hope Trump will back away from the tariffs on Mexican goods. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that he does not "believe that President Trump will actually go through with the tariffs."

"President Trump has a habit of proposing asinine and dangerous policies before backing off," the New York Democrat said. "And President Trump has a habit of pretending that the very act of not following through on a misguided policy is somehow a victory. So I wouldn't be surprised at all if President Trump doesn't follow through on these tariffs either."

Trump fired back in a tweet later Tuesday, calling Schumer a "creep" and suggesting that he was not bluffing with his threat.

Trump's warning

Last week, Trump said he would slap tariffs on Mexican goods and gradually increase the duties "until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, stop." His threat raised concerns about whether the U.S. and Mexico would approve the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Trump sees the USMCA, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, as a top economic and political priority.

A Mexican delegation came to the U.S. this week to discuss issues including trade and immigration with U.S. officials. McConnell said he hoped the talks were "fruitful" and would lead to Mexico making changes that would lead to Trump scrapping the tariffs.

The president, for his part, appeared to warn Republicans against taking action if he goes through with the duties.

"I don't think they will do that," Trump said during a press conference in London with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday.

"I think if they do, it's foolish."

— CNBC's Stephanie Dhue contributed to this report.

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