By Erik Wasson / Bloomberg
July 11, 2018

The U.S. Senate took President Donald Trump to task on trade but fell short of curtailing his power to impose tariffs.

In an 88-11 vote on Wednesday, the Senate approved a symbolic motion backing a role for Congress in requiring tariffs based on national security, such as those Trump imposed on steel and aluminum imports and is contemplating on autos. The vote came a day after the administration said it would impose a new round of 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods as part of a dispute over alleged Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property.

The non-binding effort was sponsored by retiring Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who has been a critic of Trump’s trade agenda and is especially concerned about damage to his home state from a tariff on auto imports.

“This is not being imposed for national security reasons,” Corker said on the Senate floor. “This is an abuse of presidential authority.”

For Republicans wary of taking on a president popular with GOP voters, the vote was a display of frustration over Trump’s tariffs. Yet it also shows their reticence to open themselves to criticism from the president before November’s congressional elections that will determine whether the GOP maintains control of the House and Senate.

The Senate often takes such test votes as a way to build momentum for eventual binding legislation. Corker said the vote suggests “strong support” for giving Congress a bigger role on tariffs and that he will seek a binding vote.

Stock Slide

Trump’s latest move to ratchet up tariffs on Chinese goods raises the prospect that China could strike back by tripping up U.S. companies doing business in the Asian nation — and tech is especially vulnerable.

The escalating trade war with China caused stocks and commodities to slide in markets worldwide. In the U.S., trade-sensitive shares led the decline, with Caterpillar Inc. and Boeing Co. slumping. The benchmark S&P 500 Index sank 0.6 percent as of 2:52 p.m. New York time.

Senator David Perdue, a Georgia Republican who is one of Trump’s top allies, said on the Senate floor that the motion would undermine Trump during future trade talks.

“I don’t understand why this body tries time and again to tie the hands of this president,” Perdue said. “Credibility in negotiating trade terms is absolutely critical.”

The Senate motion advises negotiators on an unrelated energy and water appropriations bill to include language giving Congress a role on the national-security tariffs. The bill is unlikely to actually include such language.

Not ‘Targeted Approach’

Instead, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, has said he’ll begin what could be a months-long process to examine whether Congress should take back some of the power to impose tariffs it has delegated to the executive branch. He said in a statement on the committee’s Twitter account: “This vote underscores the consensus of the Senate–the admin. should rethink its approach” on national security tariffs.

Corker and Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, earlier failed to add to farm legislation a binding provision forcing presidents to get congressional approval for tariffs based on national security. That attempt was blocked by Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, who supports Trump’s steel tariffs.

Toomey said in an interview that it’s unclear when the finance panel will hold hearings or a vote on a bill that would limit Trump’s tariff powers. A compromise measure could require Trump to consult with Congress on tariffs or allow tariffs to go into effect unless Congress votes to block them.

Legislation limiting Trump’s power would face dim prospects in the House. House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, said in an interview that in the “long term” he wants to examine national-security tariff powers, but for now he is working to ease the ability to seek exclusions from tariffs.

“Right now the focus is on how we buy time for president’s strategy to work against China and critical to that is really lifting the pain off of our local farmers and manufacturers,” Brady said.

‘Hamstring’ the President

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin told reporters he wants to give Trump time to work out a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping before acting on trade. “I don’t want to hamstring the president’s negotiating power,” he said.

Some House Republicans are urging action.

“We never should have delegated that authority to the president in the first place,” said Texas Republican Bill Flores. “We need to start taking it back. I hope Congress will act. Whether it will or not I don’t know.”

On Wednesday, six House members led by Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher introduced bipartisan legislation to require Congress to approve future tariffs based on national security.

The push to rein in Trump is being propelled by business lobbyists. The Club for Growth and Heritage Action said Wednesday they would count the vote on the Corker motion in their scorecards that lawmakers use to tout their conservative credentials.

“As the trade war with China and other countries heats up, it’s imperative that Congress reclaim its authority by supporting this motion,” the Club for Growth said in a statement.

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