Republicans surrender to Trump’s China tariffs

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Republicans surrender to Trump’s China tariffs




Chuck Grassley

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley admitted that Congress has ceded too much power to the White House on trade, but he declined to say whether his committee would do anything about it.
| Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

The GOP is starting to give up on thwarting President Donald Trump’s trade agenda.

Senate Republicans acknowledge that the president’s latest tariff increase on Chinese imports are harming farm state economies, their own constituents and some of Trump’s most reliable voters. But there’s no plan to stop, or even threaten, the president’s tariff regime — just the latest example of Trump imposing his protectionist will on a party that once celebrated free trade.

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As the stock market tanked on Monday following the escalating conflict with China, Republicans lamented the state of affairs. But after trying, unsuccessfully, to get the president to remove his year-old tariffs on U.S. allies, there’s little appetite for opening a new front with Trump when it comes to China.

So the GOP on Monday stuck to the same message: The tariffs are bad, but at least this time, Trump is taking on China — and not on Canada or Mexico.

“They can feel it. The farm community up ‘til now has really supported the president without flinching. But eventually you flinch,” said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the No. 4 GOP leader whose state is a major soybean producer. Yet he concluded: “If you’re going to have a trade fight, the trade fight to have would be the China fight.”

Farmers are “disappointed but, you know, recognizing that China is the one that is forcing this,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

Trump showed little regard for the GOP’s worries on Monday as he advised Americans to avoid buying products made in China to avoid the tariffs then later bragged that the tariffs are taking in billions of dollars — ignoring that consumers pay those fees, not China.

“I love the position we’re in,” he said. “It’s working out really well.”

Republicans would disagree but apparently have no will to challenge the president over the matter.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley has vowed to block the president’s new North American trade deal as long as steel and aluminum tariffs remain on Mexico and Canada, but Trump has ignored his ultimatum.

On Monday, Grassley admitted that Congress has ceded too much power to the White House on trade, but the Iowa Republican declined to say whether his committee would do anything about it. He offered the gentlest of guidance to Trump, urging him to work with allies on the China fight, and ordered China “to get real.”

It’s a widely held view among Republicans: Past Congresses granted the White House too much authority and now there’s nothing lawmakers can do about it.

“The retaliatory tariffs will have a significant consequence to Kansans,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). He said the Senate can only do so much besides make their case to the White House: “Really this authority rests in the president.”

That’s a view that ignores Congress’ power to rein in the president or confront him through legislation. But the GOP is in no mood to get into it with Trump after blocs of Senate Republicans defied him on his national emergency declaration, criticized his foreign policy and tanked his two Federal Reserve picks. A number of Republicans are up for reelection and sweating potential primary challenges if they cross Trump.

Instead, Republicans seem to be relying on Trump’s conservative base in agricultural states to deliver the president a message. Asked who can determine when the economic pain from retaliatory tariffs is too much to stand, South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds said, “It’s up to the producers.”

“They can’t produce soybeans and actually make a profit today. Five years in a row, farmers’ prices are down 50 percent since 2013. This is a very serious thing, and these are the president’s people. They want him to be successful. But there’s a limit to how long they can hang in there,” Rounds said.

The steel and aluminum tariffs on North American and European allies have drawn far more GOP opposition because they were imposed on the dubious basis of national security. Some Republicans have sought to restrict those “section 232” tariffs, but GOP leaders have declined to consider legislation that would tie Trump’s hands.

The GOP pushback has been far weaker on Trump’s China offensive, even though the results have been just as damaging. Beijing is imposing new 25 percent tariffs on $60 billion in U.S. imports in the face of Trump’s new levies on $200 billion in Chinese goods.

“The president’s right to hold China’s feet to the fire on this,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). “They wouldn’t be negotiating at all if it weren’t for what the president has done. Of course, I’d like to see a deal done.”

Still, many Republicans are once again worried about economic headwinds, and the stock market is looking shaky. Rural America, where Trump is popular, could be headed for ruin.

But after complaining about Trump’s trade policies for more than two years, the only thing new in the GOP is a sense of resignation and a sense that confrontational stances toward Trump in the past have not paid off.

“It’s a lot of uncertainty. Some anxiety. And obviously that’s reflected in the stock market,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Trump has “got a lot of power when it comes to those tariffs so we’re just trying to work with him.”

Though they frequently complain, Republicans have been loath to cross Trump on trade, one of the most sensitive rifts with the party. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell squelched an effort last Congress to give lawmakers the power to block Trump’s national security-based tariffs, and two of the most fervent backers of that effort, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, have retired.

There’s still plenty of unease about the tariffs on U.S. allies, but the moment for action seems to have passed. Now that Trump has turned to China, Republicans are even less inclined to confront Trump over a trade war with a country widely blamed for stealing intellectual property from the United States. Many senators are also still worried Trump could impose new tariffs on foreign autos, which would strike at factories in Southern states that are mostly represented by Republicans.

Perhaps most important, Republicans stopped being surprised when the president makes good on a protectionist trade policy he’s been touting for nearly four years now.

The new tariffs on China were “the worst kept secret in America,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “If it was a secret.”

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