GOP senators eye their options against Trump on tariffs

Senate Republicans return to Washington Monday and face a choice: Are they willing to take action on trade against the President from their own party?

The Trump administration shocked lawmakers last week when it announced it would impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from US allies in the European Union, Canada and Mexico, a move that Republicans have tried publicly and privately for months to discourage.

Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber as majority whip, told reporters Monday that he doesn’t believe Congress will take any action to roll back the President’s ability to impose tariffs on aluminum and steel even after warnings from GOP lawmakers last week.

“I think that is primarily an executive branch function, and I don’t really see Congress passing and getting a presidential signature on something constraining his authority,” the Texas Republican said. “I hope we can just have a good discussion and come together on a consensus position.”

On Saturday, retiring Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker tweeted that he was working with “like-minded” senators on the issue, but whether there will be a large enough coalition to force a change isn’t clear yet.

“I am working with like-minded Republican senators on ways to push back on the president using authorities in ways never intended and that are damaging to our country and our allies. Will Democrats join us?” tweeted Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

On Monday, Corker told CNN “we seem to want to punish our allies and befriend our enemies.”

Asked if he had spoken to Corker yet about his plans, Cornyn said, “I haven’t had a chance to, but I will.” He also said that congressional Republicans will continue talking to the administration about the issue to help describe “what is possible and what would gain the political support that is necessary.”

“The aluminum and steel tariffs are unpopular because of the retaliation that can come against other sectors of our economy, like agriculture,” Cornyn said. “It’s kind of an unguided missile.”

Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of GOP leadership, doesn’t see Congress tackling legislation to roll back Trump’s authority on tariffs.

“I don’t see any likely legislative remedy that the President would agree to, so why would we want to waste our time on a legislative solution where hopefully the collective persuasive efforts at the White House will get us in a different direction?” Blunt asked.

He added, “I think the President thinks that he is a better negotiator than we are, and he may turn out to be right. He’s headed toward a final product which hopefully will not look like the current environment.”

The fear among Republicans is that new tariffs could raise the cost of consumer goods in an election year and overshadow an otherwise strong economy.

“I hope we pull back from the brink here because these tariffs will not be good for the economy, and I worry that it will slow, if not impeded significantly, the progress we were making economically for the country,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said during an event in Kentucky last week.

But, confronting Trump — especially just months ahead of the midterms — carries its own risks. So far, Republican leaders — including McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch — have all sounded the alarm, but there’s little evidence that they’d swiftly move legislation to roll back the trade authority of the administration.

“This is a big mistake,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, summing up GOP opposition to Trump’s tariffs.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican who hails from the agriculture-heavy state of Iowa, told reporters Monday there were questions surrounding whether these specific tariffs would improve national security, a rationale Trump has cited for the tariffs and that Canada’s finance minister described as “absurd.”

“The question is, is he using it for legitimate national security purposes?” said Grassley, who chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. “And I’m sure he feels he is. But I think there is some question about that.”

Asked if the tariffs were concerning, Grassley responded, “I would want a President to try to get us a better deal if he could on trade. But I’m also nervous because I’ve seen (Jimmy) Carter and (Ronald) Reagan and George W. Bush put such tariffs on and then when there is retaliation, it’s against agriculture and that’s very concerning to me.”

This story has been updated.