Senate Republican leaders are maneuvering to defuse an effort by one of their own seeking to handcuff President Donald Trump on trade.
GOP leaders are moving swiftly to tamp down support for Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) proposal to give Congress power to stop Trump tariffs, eager to avoid a standoff with the president five months ahead of the midterms.
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Corker’s pitch has support from a sizable number of fellow Republicans who are frustrated by Trump slapping trade penalties on U.S. allies — but allowing it a vote on the Senate floor in the coming days is a step too far for leadership.
Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that the tariffs proposal “is entitled to a hearing and I would support a vote on it, but this is obviously a problem getting a vote on it on this bill.”
Senior Republicans say that Corker’s approach would run into a procedural problem with the House. That rationale may be used to kill the prospects of adding his tariff proposal to a defense bill. Some GOP senators are also trying to steer the volatile tariff debate through the Senate Finance Committee, where it would be bottled up while the Republicans try to change Trump’s mind on trade.
Stopping Corker’s amendment on the must-pass defense bill would largely deflate what seemed to be a brewing effort within the GOP to curb the president’s protectionist instincts. Trump’s recent extension of steel and aluminum tariffs imposed on national security grounds to Mexico, Canada and Europe has prompted plans for retaliatory penalties from those longtime U.S. partners.
Corker said in an interview that he’s open to tweaking his proposal to alleviate the procedural concerns and declined to back down from his push for a vote on his bill, which counts a dozen cosponsors in both parties.
“It does hurt me a little bit to know that our institution has evolved to a place where if a president doesn’t wish for something to be dealt with, we won’t deal with it,” Corker added.
The legislation has a so-called “blue slip” problem with the House, where the Constitution requires revenue-related legislation to originate before moving across the Capitol, according to two GOP sources with knowledge of the matter.
Republicans who want to sidestep a showdown believe that they can convince Trump to reverse course on his use of the national security-related tariffs. At a White House meeting on Wednesday with a group of GOP senators, Trump did not threaten to veto the defense bill now on the floor if the tariff bill was attached, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who organized the meeting.
Instead, Graham said, he talked to senators about “how this movie is going to end” and assured them it would be a happy one, apparently satisfying about a dozen Republicans.
“I felt the White House had a plan and I want to give them the space and time to be successful,” he said.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has publicly warned about economic blowback from the tariffs but he’s also been increasingly public with his criticism of the Corker proposal, telling Fox News Wednesday night that “we’re not going to be, in the Senate, passing a bill preventing the president from what he can legally do under current law.”
Corker shot back at Cornyn’s past explanation for avoiding a vote, citing the slim chance that Trump would support ceding executive-branch power over tariffs. “Did I hear [Cornyn] say that he didn’t feel like we should do anything that the president might not like?” Corker quipped.
Even if the bipartisan tariffs bill could get considered on the floor — the last Senate amendment vote happened in March — it’s far from clear whether it would get the 60 votes needed for passage. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a vulnerable Democrat up for reelection in a manufacturing-rich state that Trump won, said that he’s “unlikely” to support Corker’s proposal.
If Corker’s bill doesn’t end up getting a vote on the defense bill, McConnell may be forced to limit amendments outright on the legislation, typically a bipartisan affair that ends up turning into a magnet for controversial proposals.
Corker sarcastically added that he would be fine with sending the tariffs issue through the Finance panel “as long as every other amendment that’s offered would go to committee first.”
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