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Republican senators try to rein in Trump tariff authority

Toya Sarno Jordan/GettyImages Sen. Bob Corker speaks to the press
Sen. Bob Corker
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker may try to attach legislation to farm bill.

by Jenny Leonard, Laura Litvan and Steven T. Dennis

The pressure on President Donald Trump’s trade moves is mounting as Republican senators consider options to limit his unilateral authority to impose tariffs on national-security grounds.

A leader in the drive, GOP Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, said he will try to attach language reining in the president’s authority to a farm bill pending in the full Senate this week. And Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Finance Committee, which oversees trade policy, said Tuesday that he plans to advance stand-alone legislation that would address members’ concerns about Trump’s imposition of new duties.

“I do plan on moving some tariff legislation in the committee,” Hatch told reporters, adding that it would focus on the Section 232 authority Trump has used to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies this year.

Trump has also threatened to slap tariffs on auto imports and foreign-made car parts after the Commerce Department finishes an investigation into the national-security risks of those products.

Corker has proposed legislation that would require a congressional review when a president invokes the national-security justification to impose tariffs, and it would apply to the recent duties because it would be retroactive for two years. He was blocked earlier this month when he tried to attach it to an annual defense bill. 

Leaving a private meeting in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office Tuesday afternoon, Corker said McConnell indicated he would not oppose his plan to try again with the farm-subsidy measure. At the same time, Corker said, he doesn’t know whether he can get the needed agreement of all senators to bring up the amendment. 

Hatch has long opposed tariffs and particularly the use of the 232 statute, a 1960s trade law that gives the president broad powers to bypass Congress in his decision. Many Republicans have voiced concerns with Trump’s tariff moves and sought to limit his authority. 

At a committee hearing with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last week, Hatch said, “I just don’t see how the damage posed on all of these sectors could possibly advance our national security.”

‘Clear’ Lessons

“The lessons of the steel and aluminum tariffs are clear: These tariffs do not support U.S. national security,” Hatch said.

A committee spokeswoman said Hatch is not ruling out pursuing legislation on Section 232 and that he is continuing to have conversations with members of his committee on the best path forward. But she cautioned that no final decision had been made. 

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said Tuesday that Hatch told members “that he intends to hold a hearing and potentially a markup on not only Section 232 but other trade issues.”

Farm Bill

Cornyn said he expects the Corker bill to be offered as an amendment to the farm bill, but added that he preferred dealing with the issue in the Finance Committee.

“Many of us including myself do have some concerns about how Section 232 is being used,” Cornyn told reporters. “There is some concern that adding it to the farm bill will be an impediment to actually getting a farm bill signed by the president. We’re going to pass the farm bill this week so I imagine it’s going to be disposed of one way or the other before we leave.” 

But leaders are under pressure from free-trade Republicans like Corker and Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to let the matter come before the Senate very soon.

“I’d like to have a vote now,” Toomey said. “I think the committee could delay this for a very long time.”

More than 270 business groups are supporting the Corker amendment. In a letter sent to senators Tuesday, the groups said the tariffs already imposed on steel and aluminum imports have led to retaliation and are “undermining U.S. efforts to build an international coalition of like-minded countries to join the United States in combating the use of unfair trade and investment policies.”

--With assistance from Erik Wasson.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jenny Leonard in Washington at [email protected] ;Laura Litvan in Washington at [email protected] ;Steven T. Dennis in Washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Murray at [email protected] ;Joe Sobczyk at [email protected]

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P

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