A day after the S.C. Chamber of Commerce asked Palmetto State congressmen to stand up against President Donald Trump's trade agenda, Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott voted against challenging the administration's policy.
The vote was on a nonbinding measure, meaning it has no force of law. But it sought to put senators on the record about whether they think Congress should have a role in slapping tariffs on a wide array of imported goods from China, Mexico, Canada and the European Union. So far, Trump has imposed those tariffs unilaterally.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said the measure was intended as "a rebuke to the president's abuse of trade authority."
The measure passed, with Graham and Scott among only 11 senators to oppose it.
Both lawmakers previously have said the S.C. business community has anxieties about tariffs that have not yet come to fruition. Each told McClatchy Wednesday, though, their votes should not be construed to suggest they aren't concerned about the possibility that tariffs ultimately could wreck havoc on the state's manufacturing economy.
Graham said he voted "no" on the resolution to give Trump room to get better trade deals for everyone.
"I want to give the president the chance to play this out," Graham explained. "What would make people like me feel better is to kind of know how this movie ends. What does a good deal look like with China, with Europe?
"I don't want to take leverage away from the president," he continued. "But I think he and his team need to come to Capitol Hill and start explaining what a good deal looks like. Give me a definable end game that makes sense to me and I'll fight with you as long as I can, as hard as I can."
Scott said he also didn't want to vote for a measure that would send the message that lawmakers don't support Trump's efforts to negotiate better trade agreements.
"The (Senate) Finance Committee will at some point take up this entire issue," said Scott, who is a member of the panel. "We will be moving forward, I think, on some initiatives that will help clarify the role Congress should have in these trade conversations, and I think we should have a role. I just thought this vehicle is not the way we should express that."
Scott added he thinks the administration's negotiations will end with a good deal for the country and for South Carolinians.
Still, S.C. Chamber president Ted Pitts sent a letter to the congressional delegation Tuesday warning that unless Trump's tariffs became "broader in thought and more targeted in (their) application ... it will cost South Carolina jobs."
The way lawmakers can be most helpful, Pitts said, was to "do whatever it takes to inform the administration about the jobs at risk."
Yet Pitts told McClatchy Wednesday he didn't fault Graham and Scott for voting as they did. He said he thinks the executive branch should have authority to set trade policy, not Congress, and the resolution was nonbinding, anyway.
Pitts also said the senators' votes were not in conflict with his letter's pleas for them to use their clout with the administration. In fact, he argued, they probably have more clout after voting against the measure than had they voted for it.
"Part of their strength and influence with the administration is their ability to work behind closed doors on issues that are important to them," said Pitts. "From a political perspective, South Carolina is better served with Sen. Graham and Sen. Scott not taking a position that may keep them out of the room where the conversation is occurring."
Back home, however, Democrats are seizing on what they characterize as Republican lawmakers' unwillingness to stand up to the GOP president on his trade policies. Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Smith held a rally Wednesday in Greer, home to the massive BMW plant, challenging Republican Gov. Henry McMaster "to stand up against job-killing tariffs."
Though BMW has not announced plans to reduce its workforce there, many fear layoffs could come later as the German car manufacturer prepares to skirt tariffs by ramping up SUV production in China.
Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a report warning that South Carolina, which produces everything from automobiles to home appliances, would be the third hardest-hit state by retaliatory tariffs from other countries. According to the report, 579,300 S.C. jobs are supported by trade, and more than $3 billion in state exports are threatened by the new tariffs.