WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress are frantically lobbying President Trump to water down his proposal to slap steep new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, fearing the move would spark a trade war and damage the U.S. economy just eight months before the 2018 elections.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other GOP lawmakers said they were pressing the president to consider a narrower response to address what Trump says is unfair trading practices by America’s global competitors.
“I think the smarter way to go is to make it more surgical and more targeted,” Ryan told reporters at a Tuesday-morning news conference.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Trump's proposal has sent a wave of worry through his GOP conference.
"There is a lot of concern among Republican senators that this could metastasize into a larger trade war, and many of our members are discussing with the administration just how broad, how sweeping this might be," McConnell said. "We are urging caution that this (could) develop into something much more dramatic that could send the economy in the wrong direction.”
Asked if the White House was listening to those concerns, McConnell seemed uncertain. "I think they are," he answered.
But others said Trump did not seem to be open to the counterarguments made by some of his own White House advisers and by GOP lawmakers.
"There’s been an awful lot of advice. This president doesn’t seem to be taking it," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
Johnson said Trump was "taking an awful lot of risk with the economy" by touting these tariffs. Even if Trump doesn't follow through, just threatening such a move was "a very risky, dangerous negotiating tactic," Johnson said.
Republicans have generally been champions of free trade. But Trump campaigned in 2016 as an economic populist, blasting multinational trade deals as bad for American workers.
Ryan’s decision to push back against Trump over the tariffs proposal highlights that policy split. But it’s not clear how much power congressional Republicans have to stop Trump from acting or how far they’re willing to go in using it.
Trump announced his tariff plan last week, saying he would impose a 25% tariff on steel imports and 10% on aluminum imports. The timing for a final tariff plan remains unclear, particularly as lawmakers scramble to head off Trump’s action.
Ryan said he agreed with Trump that some countries are engaging in unfair trade. Critics of free trade have long accused China and other countries of flooding the U.S. market with cheap steel, aluminum and other products, crippling American manufacturers as they try to compete.
“We want to make sure that abusers are held to account, especially China, when it comes to dumping and trans-shipping,” Ryan said. He did not elaborate on what steps he’s advising the president to take.
Trans-shipment usually involves routing an export through an intermediate location before its final destination, sometimes done to avoid U.S. tariffs or other trade duties.
“What we’re encouraging the administration to do is to focus on what is clearly a legitimate problem and to be more surgical in its approach so we can go after the true abusers — without creating any kind of unintended consequences or collateral damage,” Ryan said.
That “collateral damage” could come if other countries retaliate against Trump’s higher tariffs by imposing similar new levies on American exports. Many Republicans fear Trump’s move could spark a trade war that leaves American consumers paying higher prices for everything from soda cans to cars.
That could negate the benefit many Americans are seeing from the tax-cut law the GOP Congress pushed through last year.
David McIntosh, the president of the conservative Club for Growth, said that Republicans have been banking on using the tax-reform law as a major plank in their 2018 campaigns.
“Right now the way (Republicans are) motivating the base is by saying, ‘We’ve got to defend against Democrat efforts to repeal the tax cut,’” McIntosh said. If the tariffs go through and consumer prices go up, it will be hard to motivate the GOP base to come out and vote, he said.
The tariffs are “really bad” and “could wipe out the president’s signature legislation,” Garrett Ventry, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, told USA TODAY. Ventry pointed to the tariffs put in place under President George W. Bush, which cost jobs in Rust Belt states, areas that delivered Trump his historic 2016 win.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and ally of Trump, said Trump's tariffs plan dominated the House GOP’s closed-door meeting on Tuesday morning.
“There’s probably nothing that’s of greater concern right now than the tariff thing,” he said. But, he added, there is “no consensus” on how the GOP-led Congress should respond to Trump’s proposal.
Meadows said there was no talk about trying to block the president legislatively. “There’s zero chance that that could happen,” he said.
Meadows said for now lawmakers were focused on talking to the president and top White House advisers about how to soften their approach.
“It’s not falling on deaf ears,” Meadows said of their pitch to the White House. “The president just wants to make sure that U.S. companies get a fair shake, and hopefully we’ll see that happen over the next few weeks as these negotiations unfold.”
Contributing: Eliza Collins and David Jackson