Republicans have been freaking out about President Donald Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs all month. But don’t expect them to do anything about it just yet.
GOP leaders are shying away from a direct confrontation with Trump over trade, and signaled Monday that they won’t try to pass legislation to override a president of their own party. They are instead hoping they can get the president to water down the tariffs as much as they can. Ultimately, they’re loath to risk a brutal showdown, even over an issue that’s provoked more GOP outrage toward Trump than any other one of his policies or controversies.
So even though several senators are introducing proposals to stop Trump’s 25 percent tariff on imported steel and 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum, key Republicans are in no mood for a high-profile fight with Trump.
“That’s clearly a long shot. But we’re trying as best we can to persuade folks in the administration to scale this back to make it less harmful,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP senator. “I don’t think we can rely on Democrats. And moving something across the floor takes 60. And then you’d have to override a veto.”
“It may be more of a back and forth between the executive branch and Congress rather than actual legislation,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “We’re making progress without legislation.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) officially introduced his bill to nullify Trump’s tariffs on Monday afternoon and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has proposed requiring congressional approval for trade actions. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has so far expressed no interest in taking Trump on via legislation, according to senators and aides. Asked for a comment, McConnell's office pointed to his earlier remarks expressing reservation about the tariffs.
Flake acknowledged that his leaders do not want to move forward with his bill but insisted that “there are a lot of members who want to vote this way.” On Thursday, the Senate GOP spent its party lunch discussing if they have any recourse against Trump; on Sunday Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he would support Flake’s bill but doubted it could pass.
Facing the steep veto override threshold that would require at least 16 Democrats in support, Republicans are trying an easier road. Many of McConnell’s members are hoping Trump simply grants enough exemptions to U.S. allies to make the new metal tariffs palatable, even though a large swath of GOP senators have said Trump’s move will kill jobs and amount to a tax increase.
“I’m not a fan of the trade policy but I don’t think we’re there yet,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) of legislation to block Trump. “I think it may work itself out”
“I’m not really happy with what the president’s done,” said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “I’m hoping we can resolve this. And the president’s been thinking it over too.”
Hatch said last week he hoped Congress might overturn the tariffs. He said that was still on his mind, but added: “But I’m open to almost anything.”
Republicans argue they have already made progress with Trump, who has granted exemptions to Canada and Mexico while talks on NAFTA continue. They are hoping he soon goes further and grants similar outs for countries like the United Kingdom and Australia. And while that happens, the Senate is likely to hold hearings on the impact of Trump's policies, Republicans said.
Hill Republicans reason that’s far more effective than threatening Trump with legislative action and becoming engulfed in an intraparty war up and down Pennsylvania Avenue while the GOP defends its tenuous congressional majorities. Plus, taking Trump on might just might provoke him further.
“Senate Republicans overwhelmingly oppose these tariffs, but the question is how do we lessen the impact?” said a senior Republican aide. “A bill on the floor that would get a veto would only make things worse with a president who’s never shied away from running against Congress.“
That’s not to say Republicans are happy with where they find themselves, almost unanimously panning Trump’s proposals even as they doubt they can do anything about it.
“It would be better if Congress had more of a role,” Thune said. “But we gave that away.”