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Republicans eager to avoid getting stuck between Trump and tariffs on Mexico

There might be enough votes to terminate a national emergency

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said, “I don’t think tariffs anywhere are a good idea.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congressional Republicans are caught between the Koch brothers and President Donald Trump on a closer-by-the-day trade war, and are uneasily weighing their options to nullify Trump’s proposed tariffs on Mexican imports. 

On Tuesday afternoon, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the LIBRE Initiative sent a letter pushing congressional leaders to stand up against what they characterized as tens of billions of effective tax increases, including from Trump’s potential 5 percent tariffs on imports from Mexico (and which could grow to more than 25 percent).

“If these and other threatened tariff increases are added to the nearly $70 billion in tariffs implemented over the past 18 months, the cost to Americans would be $303 billion a year, or $3 trillion over ten years — and, according to the National Taxpayer Union Foundation the largest tax hike in post-World War II history,” the two groups wrote.

Some Senate Republicans spoke from that traditionally GOP point of view both before and after a conference lunch Tuesday that saw senators pressing top administration lawyers who were sent in to defend the president’s policy pronouncements.

“I don’t think tariffs anywhere are a good idea. I think they’re a tax on the American consumer,” Sen. Cory Gardner said. “I don’t support them.”

The Colorado Republican is among those on the ballot in 2020 who could face the most direct political consequences from the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown and increasingly related hard -line trade policy — though opposition to tariffs is by no means a new position for Gardner.

“We will continue to look at all options,” he said shortly before the lunch when asked about possible Senate action to stop them.

What happens next

Those options could include a political tightrope vote on a joint resolution to terminate a Trump national emergency declaration related to security at the U.S.-Mexico border. Among the topics of discussion among Republicans on Tuesday was whether the president would declare a new emergency to implement the tariff, and the administration was not committal.

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal said Congress will respond if Trump moves forward with the tariffs on Mexico. But the Massachusetts Democrat declined to specify what form that action would take, only saying it is still being discussed.

Any attempt to use the appropriations process to block the tariffs is unlikely, since the tariffs would take effect long before any spending bills could be approved by Congress and, theoretically but not likely, signed by the president. 

Members of Congress have been mum about pursuing legal action for some of the same reasons, because the courts can take so long and the results be so unpredictable. 

Many Republicans were hoping to persuade the president and his administration to continue talking to Mexican officials and to hold off on any punitive measures that could harm their constituents or the economy. 

“There was a lot of concern and apprehension among Republican senators about what the potential impacts of the tariffs could be on the economy generally,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota said, “and specifically, in farm country, on our farmers who sell an awful lot of their goods to Mexico.”

“There is not much support in my conference for tariffs, that’s for sure,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday after the lunch.

Sen. Mitt Romney was among those hopeful that the discussions between the U.S. and Mexico would prove fruitful ahead of June 10, when the president says the new tariffs will kick in.

“What you’re likely to see is the Mexican government and our government will find some way of working out this collaboratively and not reaching a tariff. I certainly hope we don’t see a tariff, and if there’s a vote, it’s a very difficult vote for those of us who oppose tariffs,” the Utah Republican said. “I would not be inclined to vote on a tariff against a friend.”

Romney certainly was not alone in hoping that the tariffs could be avoided.

“We had the opportunity at lunch to talk to a number of representatives from the White House about this particular strategy. I can safely say most of us hope that the Mexican delegation that has come up here can discuss the challenges at the border and what the Mexicans might be able to do to help us more than they have will be fruitful,” McConnell said. “And that these tariffs will not kick in.”

The sentiment was similar across the Capitol from House Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady of Texas, who described the chatter about a termination resolution as “premature.”

Trump, who is in Europe this week, said at a news conference Tuesday in London that he did not think Republicans would block the tariffs.

Put up or shut up

GOP lawmakers have not been unanimous in criticizing the administration’s move to impose the tariffs on Mexican imports that could take effect next week, but veto-proof opposition is not out of the question on either side of Capitol Hill.

A handful of states with Republican members of Congress have at least 20 percent of their trade with Mexico, meaning their states and districts could feel an especially significant blow. And there could be enough GOP members there to push the math in favor of overriding a veto, if they are willing to risk the political wrath of the president.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, said in effect it was time for Republicans to put up or shut up on pushing back against the Trump trade agenda.

“The real question is whether Republicans are going to produce the kind of support to override the Trump veto,” the Democrat from Oregon said. “I have been watching, for example, Republicans bob and dance and weave even in their response to whether a tariff is a tax. Now, that has been Republican orthodoxy since the Earth cooled, that a tariff was a tax.”

“This puts more directly the link between tariffs and immigration than I believe we’ve seen before, and let’s see what they do,” Wyden said.

Among the few vocal supporters Tuesday was North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, another Republican who faces voters in his home state next year. Tillis was asked specifically about whether the administration policy with respect to Mexico could be a tax hike on his constituents.

“Any time you talk about tariffs, it could be, but I think it’s a necessary part because what’s the tax on handling 80,000 additional illegal immigrants coming across the border? Housing them, adjudicating them, you’ve got to look at the total cost of the crisis,” Tillis told reporters.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott was also among those more conciliatory toward the administration’s position.

“I don’t want to see tariffs, but I understand where the president is. He’s stuck. He’s got to get this border security,” the Florida Republican said. “In the last month, 109,000 people were apprehended.”

Katherine Tully-McManus, Lindsey McPherson, Rachel Oswald, Chris Marquette and Peter Cohn contributed to this report.

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