Republicans plot assault on Trump’s tariff agenda

Republican senators plan to move quickly this week to limit President Donald Trump’s ability to impose tariffs on cars, steel and farm products as they aim to minimize the damage these policies could do to their 2020 election prospects.

The battle over Trump’s tariffs — affecting workers and farmers in Kansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Kentucky, where voters have been sympathetic to the president — reflects one of the few disputes between Republican lawmakers and a White House that has repeatedly been able to limit political damage on everything from Trump’s declaration of an emergency at the border to his willingness to back the recent partial government shutdown.

Trade, particularly the war over tariffs, is a very different matter.

“This issue is probably ... the most significant, persistent disagreement between virtually all of the Republican senators and the president, the question of free trade and what we should be doing,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican.

The first stop for the congressional effort is the Senate Finance Committee, where Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, is considering legislation by senior Republicans that would curb the president’s power to impose tariffs on the grounds that imports were a national security threat.

Grassley feels that “Congress has designated too much authority to the president when it comes to tariffs,” Michael Zona, the committee’s communications director, said. Resolving this issue “is a priority” for Grassley, Zona said, but offered no timetable for action.

A year ago, Trump imposed tariffs on aluminum and steel products. The White House is now considering whether to impose tariffs on auto imports, triggering a fiery response from Rust Belt lawmakers.

“I don’t want to see more cars being made offshore, and that’s what I’m concerned will happen if those tariffs go into place,” Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said.

His legislation would require the Defense Department, rather than the Commerce Department, to determine whether imports are a national security threat. Defense reportedly did not see steel and aluminum imports as a threat last year, while Commerce did. Portman’s initiative is backed by four other Republicans as well as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and two other Democrats.

Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, have put together a broad coalition of senators backing another plan that would require congressional approval of a presidential tariff imposed under the law allowing such actions for national security reasons.

Also behind the effort are Sens. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, four other Republicans, three Democrats and Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats.

While strong support for Trump has become crucial for keeping the president’s base in line, the impact of the White House trade policy is being felt keenly throughout the country.

Among the affected states:

Georgia. Lawton Pearson’s farm in Fort Valley had exported about 60 percent of his pecan farm’s crop to China before that country imposed new tariffs. Now he’s exporting no pecans to China. Asked how he’s coping, Pearson said, “I’m trying not to spend any money. There’s very little we can do.”

Texas. The typically GOP-friendly business community formed a separate trade coalition with its own Washington lobbyists shortly after Trump’s election to push back on his threats to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The state is home to roughly 2.2 million jobs in the farming, ranching and manufacturing industries that depend on international trade.

Kansas. The trade fight has hit Kansas’ agriculture industry hard as farmers have struggled to sell their crops overseas. Kansas ranked second in the nation in Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies last year with 35 compared to 10 the previous year, according to data from the American Farm Bureau.

If there’s a wet spring, many Kansas farmers will have to plant soybeans and sorghum, two crops that have been significantly affected by the trade fight with China, said Ryan Flickner, senior director of public policy at the Kansas Farm Bureau.

“They’re becoming a little nervous,” Flickner said. “We have to have an overseas customer.”

Kentucky. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has estimated that $2.3 billion of Kentucky exports are threatened by the trade wars, risking “very significant damage” to the state’s economy. Affected industries range from soybeans to passenger cars to bourbon.

The Kentucky Automotive Industry Association has warned of a slowdown, with the head of Toyota North America saying last week that additional tariffs that Trump has proposed to impose on foreign vehicles would make it difficult for the company to carry out a planned $750 million investment at five U.S. plants, including one in Kentucky.

The Republican lawmakers’ unusual defiance of Trump illustrates their deep concern that the issue of trade could leave them vulnerable in a 2020 election where Democrats need a net gain of four seats to win control of the Senate, three if a Democratic president is elected.

The most vulnerable Republican seats are in Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina — all won by Trump in 2016 — as well as Colorado and Maine, according to Inside Elections, a nonpartisan research group. Only Alabama, which Trump won by 28 points, currently looms as a shaky Democratic-held seat.

In the House, Republicans probably need a net gain of 18 seats to win control, and are zeroing in on many of the 31 seats in districts won by Democratic House members in 2018, but by Trump in 2016. Among them: four seats in New York, four in New Jersey, three in Iowa and two each in Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois. Also in that mix are seats in Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.

The Republican National Committee has been promoting Trump as a master dealmaker, deeply concerned about American workers. Fighting for freer and fairer trade is “a promise he made and another promise he intends to keep,” said RNC Press Secretary Blair Ellis.

Trump has been using, and has suggested he will continue to use, a 1962 law that allows him to impose tariffs on items if a flood of imports is seen by the administration as hurting domestic industry and creating a national security risk. He needs no congressional approval.

Also feeding the Republican grassroots skepticism about Trump trade policy is the weight of retaliatory tariffs. The European Union retaliated against the aluminum and steel tariffs last year by slapping its own duties on different agricultural products.

Since last summer, when the United States has imposed tariffs on a wide variety of Chinese goods, China has retaliated with tariffs on U.S. products, notably agricultural commodities.

Trump was set to impose new tariffs on China on March 1, but delayed any action and expressed optimism that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping could reach an agreement on trade. They are expected to meet this spring.

Also lurking in the background is the update to the North American Free Trade Agreement. While officials from the United States, Canada and Mexico have agreed on a deal, it needs congressional ratification, which still appears to be months away.

“We have a trade policy that’s very uncertain. And so farmers and lenders are very worried about their future,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican.

Andrea Drusch, Bryan Lowry and Lesley Clark of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this story.
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David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.