Senate Republicans worried about a possible trade war with U.S. allies Canada, Mexico and the European Union are pushing a plan to give Congress the final say over some trade actions.
A group led by Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker plans to unveil legislation this week to limit when President Trump, or any future president, could invoke national security as a reason for taxing foreign imports. It is a rare effort among congressional Republicans to use legislation to limit controversial policies embraced by Trump.
“I’ve always expressed my disagreement when it occurred, this is one we can deal with legislatively,” Corker told reporters on Tuesday. “I also know the vast majority of our caucus would agree with this.”
Corker, who plans to retire at the end of this year, joined with Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey to draft legislation that would allow Congress to review and approve tariffs that are based on national security concerns. The pair have not released written details of the proposal, but they said it is a limited effort to prevent any White House from misusing the national security justification to crack down on imports.
Congress has the authority in the Constitution to oversee trade. But, over time, the power has shifted to the White House. Toomey said the plan with Corker is simply restoring that power to Congress.
“The Constitution gives it to Congress,” Toomey said. “What should be controversial about Congress exercising their authority?”
The issue is creating some controversy among Republicans who have traditionally been cautious about criticizing Trump.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he wouldn’t bring up the proposal as a stand-alone measure, but he didn’t rule out the possibility that Corker could offer his plan as an amendment to the typically bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.
“I’m not going to call it up free-standing,” McConnell said. “NDAA’s going to be opened, we’ll see what amendments are offered.”
The Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill later this month, giving Corker a short window to rally votes.
Corker won’t say how many people officially back his plan, but many Republicans say they are worried about the tariffs Trump announced.
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley is among those who are uncommitted. He said Monday that Trump’s threat to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement could harm farmers in particular.
“From the standpoint from agriculture, what can happen if the president fails, yes I’m very nervous myself,” Grassley said. “In 12 town meetings in northwest Iowa that’s what I constantly heard.”
National Republican Senate Committee Chairman Cory Gardner of Colorado also hasn’t backed the Corker plan, but he says tariffs could be bad politics for Republicans in the midterm election.
“I just think a growing economy is going to be critical in November,” Gardner said Tuesday. “If tariffs are taking away from that, that’s certainly something that would not be helpful.”
But not every Republican who worries about the tariffs is willing to back the long-shot plan. Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy was among those who are waiting to see if the tariffs actually harm the economy.
“We’re not there confronting the president on tariffs. I still believe the president is using the tariffs as a bargaining chip,” Kennedy said. “I think he’s way too intelligent to get us into a trade war. The only way to win it is not to fight.”
There are other challenges to convincing Republicans to sign on. Corker wants to make the amendment retroactive for two years so that Congress can review the controversial tariffs Trump has already announced. But that might not be constitutional.
Still, the plan is gaining momentum, even among some of Trump’s allies, like South Dakota GOP Sen. Mike Rounds.
“It’s not that we don’t want fair trade,” Rounds told reporters. “We want fair trade just like the president does but we want to know what his end game is.”
Even with the growing support, Corker says it won’t be easy to force the president to give up some power on trade.
“Doing anything around here is like pushing a major boulder up hill,” Corker said. “We’ll see.”