Senate Republicans are calling for changes to the seldom-employed section of U.S. trade law that the Trump administration used to unilaterally impose steep new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
The conversations are in the preliminary stages, but build upon discussions GOP members have had for weeks regarding concerns over the White House’s trade policy.
President Donald Trump on Thursday announced that next week his administration would impose a new 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports and 25 percent tariff on steel imports. The move was met with a swift rebuke from congressional Republicans.
“Tariffs on steel and aluminum are a tax hike the American people don’t need and can’t afford. I encourage the president to carefully consider all of the implications of raising the cost of steel and aluminum on American manufacturers and consumers,” Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch said in a statement. The Utah Republican’s committee oversees most trade matters.
Members said the chamber would in the coming weeks explore possible changes to the provision of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 — known as Section 232 — that allows the president to impose unlimited tariffs if a federal investigations determines it poses a threat to national security.
“There are some that are proposing some action,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. said, who said members are specifically looking at possible revisions to Section 232. “We haven’t gotten into the specifics.”
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Senate Republicans have for weeks contemplated possible actions the chamber could take to push back against — or at least influence — actions the Trump administration has taken unilaterally on trade, including what oversight authority they have over the North American Free Trade Agreement should the White House opt to withdraw from the treaty.
“We are going to have some conversations about that, about what we can do to shape this,” Senate Republican Conference Chair John Thune of South Dakota said. “I don’t know what that would look like at the moment.”
While not entirely surprised that Trump would announce new protective tariffs on the metals, several GOP senators indicated that they were not briefed ahead of the public announcement.
That includes Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican concerned about the news both because of potential retaliation against his state’s agriculture interests and because of the Kansas aviation manufacturing industry.
“I read in the press that this was coming, but I didn’t have a briefing before the announcement,” Moran said. “Information is helpful, and it’s always one more opportunity to express concern about a direction that they appear to be going, so I would have been delighted to have been briefed on the decision.”
Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota echoed Moran’s concerns about retaliation being taken against agricultural producers selling overseas.
“I talked with some of the guys that work more in the steel area, like I say I focus on the Ag side, and they’re saying well they need some help, so I get that. I get that,” Hoeven said. “At the same time, we want to be very careful to make sure that it doesn’t hurt our ability to export in other areas.”
Moran also said he had previously expressed concerns about trade policy undermining the benefits of the 2017 tax code re-write.
“I said this during the tax debate. I said it to my colleagues and said it to the administration, which is: I’m a supporter of the tax changes or tax reductions, but you will significantly damage or you’ll significantly reduce the benefits that come from any tax bill if you undermine the ability to earn a living,” Moran said. “Tax cuts only are helpful to people who are earning a living, who have income. And trade is how we gain income.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican and member of leadership who often disagrees with Trump on trade, said he didn’t necessarily think the steel determination was a sign of a broader protectionist move.
“We’ve had lots of discussions about trade, and I think generally he has been open to thinking about trade agreements,” Blunt said. “The 232 defense determination is one that uniquely is left to the president.”
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