House Republicans want President Donald Trump to scale back his plan to institute sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum imports — apparently so they can avoid taking legislative action against him.
Trump said those tariffs would take effect this week and suggested they would be broadly applied to all trading partners, including allies such as Mexico and Canada, with whom the United States is trying to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
On Monday, Trump tweeted about the “large trade deficits” the U.S. has with the two countries, saying, “Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum will only come off if new & fair NAFTA agreement is signed.”
While congressional Republicans understand the president’s goal of trying to force better trade deals, most disagree with his approach.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady said he and Washington Rep. Dave Reichert, who chairs the Trade Subcommittee, are circulating a letter for signatures that will encourage Trump to “tailor his actions” on the tariffs.
“My view is the president should exempt all fairly traded steel and aluminum from every country that trades fairly,” Brady said. “Certainly Canada and Mexico. Canada is a huge customer for the U.S. Mexico is a key trading partner.”
When asked if Congress could pursue legislation to block or limit the tariffs if Trump does not tailor them on his own, the Texas Republican wouldn’t go there.
“I think the focus right now ought to be on the actions he takes this week and the actions he takes going forward as he further refines those tariffs as the economy and the impact from our trading partners starts to occur,” he said.
Congressional leaders have not ruled out legislative action but they seem to believe the diplomatic approach — in dealing with trading partners and the president himself — is the preferred way to prevent Trump from starting a trade war.
That feeling appears to be much stronger among House Republicans than Senate Republicans, who were quick to raise the possibility of congressional action.
“There are some that are proposing some action,” North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said last week.
Early discussions among Senate Republicans have focused on possible changes to the provision of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 — known as Section 232 — that allows the president to impose unlimited tariffs on imports if a federal investigation determines they pose a threat to national security, he said.
At least one House Republican agrees with the need to refine Section 232.
Rep. Mark Sanford said Trump’s tariff proposal is a “a gross misuse of that section of the law.”
“The idea that trading with our dearest neighbors of the north and one of our best and most long-standing allies is a threat to national security is something I don’t understand,” the South Carolina Republican said.
With Trump using Section 232 “in this rather creative way, then I think that Congress absolutely ought to look at legislation tightening up,” Sanford said. But he added that he doesn’t believe that’s realistic in the present environment.
Avoiding a ‘direct affront’
“It would be viewed as a direct affront to the president, and I don’t think that there are a lot of Republicans that want to be viewed as taking a direct affront against the president,” said Sanford, a Freedom Caucus member.
Indeed, House Republicans generally avoided direct criticism of the president in opposing his tariff proposal.
“I applaud the president for going after unfairly traded products in steel and aluminum,” Brady said, before announcing his letter urging Trump to only target those products and exempt those that are fairly traded.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows also declined to directly criticize Trump or his proposal. The North Carolina Republican said he’s had conversations with the Trump administration that have led him to believe that their decision on tariffs was a tactical one designed to help force trading partners to agree to good trade deals, whether it be NAFTA or other multilateral pacts.
“Targeted tariffs that would deal with the finished products would probably have been my tactic,” he said. “Now that’s not to dispose of this particular tactic that the president has employed. And certainly, I think it’s too early to judge how this may turn out.”
Meadows was more clear about his view that Congress is unlikely to take action to undermine Trump’s plan.
“There is zero chance that there is going to be a legislative fix that comes out of the House and Senate to address this issue,” he said.
Exemption approach favored
Several House Republicans on Monday said they favored the exemption approach, signaling that Brady’s letter will likely have a lot of signatures.
“We have to have exemptions. This has to be fair and balanced,” said Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski, a Ways and Means member. “All I’m asking the president [for] is common sense. Let’s not go after each other. Let’s go after China, where the problem is.”
Walorski said “there’s time” to convince Trump to include exemptions, something she’s working on.
“I’m on this 24/7 because it costs jobs and it matters to the people I represent,” she said.
Sanford said he planned to sign on to Brady’s letter but questioned offering exemptions while keeping in place meaningful tariffs on the bad actors.
“The problem with exemptions is, given Canada and Mexico’s role in this particular front, the math then becomes draconian in terms of the rate you’d have to raise it on other countries,” he said.
Trump’s proposal for blanket tariffs is “a mistake of epic proportions,” Sanford said, citing the warnings of retaliation from allies like Canada, whom he noted buys 50 percent of U.S. exported steel.
“For the ‘new steel jobs’ that ‘might come,’ who’s going to be buying the steel if Canada buys 50 percent of it?” he said.
‘I appreciate the disruption’
While most Republicans expressed opposition to Trump’s tariff proposal, Rep. Tom Reed was more complimentary of the approach.
“I appreciate the disruption he’s bringing to the negotiations by the tariffs proposal,” the New York Republican said. “And I think he’s leading the charge of a charge that needs to happen. We need to put American interests out there and on the table. And by having this conversation I think he’s forcing that to occur.”
While tariffs are not the only tool that could be deployed, Reed acknowledged, he said he sees it as “a bigger picture play.”
Reed, a Ways and Means member, said he’s aware of the letter Brady and Reichert were circulating but signaled he might not sign onto it.
“I’m a little maybe [in] a minority position on this issue, a little bit more open to what the president is doing and seeing where the president is going,” he said. “And standing up for the steel industry in particular is something I’m very sensitive to.”
Asked if that meant he was open to blanket tariffs, Reed said, “I appreciate what the president is doing and how he is really sending a message to all of our trading partners that there is a new day in American trading policy, and we’re going to fight tooth and nail to make sure that our interests are taken into as much consideration as our allies’ are too.”
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