Sen. Doug Jones says Congress 'may end up acting' if Trump's trade war with China drags on

Key Points
  • Alabama's Democratic Sen. Doug Jones criticized President Donald Trump's trade war with China as his state is increasingly caught in the crossfire between Washington and Beijing. 
  • Jones says the state is exposed in both its manufacturing and agriculture sectors, and said Congress "may end up acting" if the trade conflict drags on. 
  • Running to keep his Senate seat next year in a state Trump won easily, Jones is considered one of the most vulnerable members of the chamber. 
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Alabama's Democratic Sen. Doug Jones criticized President Donald Trump's escalating trade war with China on Tuesday, hinting at bipartisan congressional action to check the president as his state becomes more exposed to the crossfire between Washington and Beijing.

"I think Alabama is not just in a unique position, but we are in a very vulnerable position with both manufacturing and farming, we cannot overlook the impact that this is having on farmers up and down the state from one end to another," Jones told CNBC on the sidelines of the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville.

"If this doesn't change soon, I think Congress may end up acting. There's bills that I've got pending with Senator Alexander and Senator Portman and I think if this doesn't end soon, Congress is going to start stepping in more than they have in the past," he added.

The ongoing trade war between the world's two largest economies took more anxious turns this week, resulting in market volatility. China, which has already put retaliatory tariffs on a range of U.S. crops, dealt another blow to the American farm industry Monday when it said it would stop purchasing U.S. agricultural products. U.S. stock indexes stabilized Wednesday, as the S&P 500 and Nasdaq inched higher while the Dow Jones industrial average fell slightly.

On Tuesday, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow offered reassurance, telling CNBC that there's still an opportunity for negotiation.

"The reality is we would like to negotiate," Kudlow said, adding that the president has said "if you make a good deal, maybe he'll be flexible on the tariffs."

In June, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan to restart negotiations and not impose new tariffs on each other's goods. Trade talks collapsed in May, with intellectual property theft proving to be a major sticking point between the two parties.

Jones said the trade conflict has created uncertainty for key industries. Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai operate assembly plants in the state, while Mazda and Toyota are building a joint assembly plant in Alabama, according to the state's Department of Commerce.

New plant for Toyota/Mazda in Alabama

Vehicles are the state's top export, and auto manufacturing employs nearly 40,000 people in Alabama.

"We've got great things going on here with Toyota and Mazda, we great things going on in the rest of the state but in terms of trying to expand and trying to move forward, nobody knows what to do. It was one thing last year to announce a possible tariff, now the tariffs are one thing but even the uncertainty is a significant problem," Jones said.

Jones is in a tough spot in 2020

It's no small thing for Jones to criticize Trump during the 2020 election cycle. He faces a slog to hold his seat in a state where Trump coasted to victory in 2016.

The president beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 30 percentage points in Alabama. As of July, 61% of registered voters in Alabama approved of the job Trump is doing, while 35% disapproved, according to Morning Consult. Alabama views Trump more favorably than any other U.S. state, the public opinion firm found.

Despite his state's partisan tilt, Jones has not hesitated to oppose Trump on trade. Earlier this year, he signed on to GOP Sen. Rob Portman's bipartisan bill that would require the Pentagon, rather than the Department of Commerce, to clear tariffs imposed for national security reasons.

Trump used a national security justification to put duties on steel and aluminum imports last year.

Outside of trade, Jones has supported abortion rights and voted against confirming key Trump nominees like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Environmental Protection Administrator Andrew Wheeler. He voted several times to override Trump vetoes this year.

As Jones faces a tough path to staying in the Senate, Republicans have lined up to challenge him. Candidates include U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, former college football coach Tommy Tuberville and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.

Jones topped Moore in a 2017 special election to finish Jeff Sessions' term after the GOP senator left to become Trump's attorney general. The Democrat should have a tougher time winning in 2020: higher turnout in a presidential year will likely boost the GOP.

In addition, accusations of sexual misconduct with teens decades ago turned voters away from Moore's campaign. Moore has denied the allegations.

Jacob Pramuk contributed to this report from CNBC's global headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.