WASHINGTON – Republican and Democratic senators expressed rising concern Thursday about the economic impact of President Donald Trump's tariffs, saying they are hearing complaints from dock workers, soybean farmers and manufacturers whose livelihoods depend on trade.
The lawmakers also said they want to see the Trump administration explain the strategy behind the tariffs and what the expectations are for success.
“To my knowledge, not a single person is able to articulate where this is headed, nor what the plans are, nor what the strategy is,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It seems to be a wake up, ready, fire, aim strategy.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., blasted the tariffs as “a reckless campaign” against U.S. allies and warned that it would drive them “into the arms of our adversaries.”
Despite the concerns, congressional leaders have been reticent about pushing back on Trump's trade agenda. Republican leaders, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have approached the issue cautiously ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
Trump made trade a signature issue in his presidential campaign and his policies are popular with many of his core supporters. Because of that, some Republican lawmakers could face a political backlash if they were to aggressively challenge the administration over tariffs.
People are hurting
At the hearing, Manisha Singh, an assistant secretary in the State Department, tried to assure skeptics that the goal of the tariffs is to safeguard economic security for the American people and make sure that U.S. workers, farmers and companies are able to compete on the global stage.
But her reassurances were met with skepticism from senators who insisted that Trump was abusing his trade authority and warned that ordinary Americans are suffering the consequences of increased global trade tensions.
“There are people around this nation that are hurting,” Corker said. “Farmers are losing money as they harvest right now.”
Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came just one day after the Senate overwhelmingly approved a largely symbolic resolution calling for Congress to have a role when the president imposes tariffs in the name of national security.
The vote came amid an escalating trade war with China, which Trump targeted this week with a list of $200 billion in Chinese goods that he said would be subject to 10 percent tariffs. Beijing, which has denied U.S. accusations of unfair trade policies, has retaliated against previous tariffs with levies on U.S. goods and is expected to do so again.
The resolution approved by the Senate on Wednesday would not impact the tariffs placed on Chinese goods but is directed at Trump’s recent decision to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies, including Canada, Mexico, the European Union and others.
Trump imposed the trade barriers in the name of national security, infuriating foreign leaders and prompting bipartisan outrage in Congress.
At Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., pointedly reminded Singh that the section of the trade law under which Trump cited national security to impose the steel and aluminum tariffs had been used in the past on adversaries like Iran, not allies such as Canada.
Singh conceded under questioning that Canada is not a threat to national security, but argued that Trump was right to impose the tariffs because an overcapacity of foreign-made steel and aluminum in the U.S. marketplace threatens the viability of domestic aluminum and steel makers.
American industries must remain competitive to help maintain national security, she said.
Senators countered that they are hearing from American workers who already are being hurt by retaliatory action from foreign leaders responding to Trump’s tariffs. Dock workers in Delaware, soybean farmers in Virginia and manufacturers in Maryland fear the tariffs will result in massive job losses, senators said.
“This is hitting Virginians very hard, hitting Americans very hard,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
In the House, a bipartisan coalition led by Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., has introduced legislation that would require the president to submit to Congress any proposal to adjust imports in the interest of national security under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act. Congress would have 60 days to review the proposed tariffs and decide whether to approve or reject them.
Corker and other lawmakers have been pushing similar legislation in the Senate to no avail.
Rare break with Trump
A handful of Republicans are pushing a broader bill that would require Congress approve trade deals within 90 days after they go into effect. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, has some of the same sponsors as the group who pushed Wednesday's resolution. But many of the House co-sponsors are close allies of the president, creating a rare instance where GOP hardliners are breaking with Trump.
Conservative Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, is the lead sponsor of the Global Trade Accountability Act. He's been joined by fellow members of the House Freedom Caucus, including prominent Trump ally Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who chairs the hardline group.
Ryan, R-Wis., speaking to reporters Thursday, expressed little enthusiasm for trade-related legislation that would curb the president’s authority – even if some of his own constituents have expressed pain from the tariffs.
“I made it very clear repeatedly I don’t think that tariffs are the right solution,” he said.
But, Ryan said, lawmakers need to work with the administration on trade policy. “I think that’s going to be more effective than trying to pass a piece of legislation that will not become law,” he said.
Conservative groups whose grassroots members agree with Trump on most issues are pushing back on trade.
“I think it’s irresponsible of Ryan to basically be so passive about it and to say that (Trump would) veto it" without trying to pass legislation, said Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative grassroots organization FreedomWorks.
Pye said the president has done well on a variety of issues important to conservatives but "we have to find ways to mitigate the effects of some of his worst tendencies.” Pye said his organization and others are working Capitol Hill to "re-educate" members on the effects of tariffs and remind them that pushing legislation to curb the executive's power on trade is both a "moral responsibility"and "an economic imperative.”
Contributing: Eliza Collins