Congressional Republicans slammed President Trump ’s decision to impose steep tariffs on aluminum and steel imports arguing that the move could kill jobs, damage the U.S. economy and hurt national defense.
Republican lawmakers have been outspoken in trying to convince Trump that he should narrow the tariffs if not outright scrap them over broader concerns that moving forward could spark a global trade war.
Trump decided to exempt Canada and Mexico, two major allies and leading importers of steel and aluminum, from the sweeping action that will levy 25 percent tariffs on all imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum.
“Today, I am defending America’s national security by placing tariffs on foreign imports of steel and aluminum,” Trump said at the White House.
He said the domestic steel and aluminum industry has been “ravaged by aggressive foreign trade practices.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who sent a letter to Trump this week, called the move “a tax hike on American manufacturers, workers and consumers.”
“Slapping aluminum and steel imports with tariffs of this magnitude is misguided,” Hatch said.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has been urging caution on the tariffs, said he is worried Trump’s decision will have “unintended consequences.”
“We will continue to urge the administration to narrow this policy so that it is focused only on those countries and practices that violate trade law,” Ryan said.
Since the tariffs will take effect in 15 days, major trading partners and allies such as the European Union, United Kingdom, Australia and South Korea will have to scramble for an exemption.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said while “exempting Canada and Mexico is a good first step, and I urge the White House to go further to narrow these tariffs so they hit the intended target, and not U.S. workers, businesses and families.”
Many Republicans argue the tariffs won’t do anything to achieve a major objective — curtail China’s overcapacity of steel.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has recently patched up his relationship with Trump, blasted the president’s approach to solving the overcapacity problem.
“A better way to level the playing field for American companies would be to rally our friends and allies to advance a robust, targeted effort to ensure that only those responsible for excess global capacity pay a price,” Corker said.
The United States already has than 160 duties targeted at specific Chinese steel products.
But problems remain and a glut of global steel has caused prices to drop, hurting U.S. producers.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former U.S. Trade Representative who has expressed support for using the 232 provision, said that “action is needed to address the worldwide overcapacity of steel, but I believe we should take a targeted approach.”
“We should focus on countries that distort markets and repeatedly violate trade laws, and on the steel and aluminum products that are most at risk from a national security perspective,” Portman said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is battling brain cancer, accused Trump of trying to use the tariffs “as an excuse for protectionism” that could harm the national defense by raising costs for the military.
“President Trump’s decision to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports will not protect America,” McCain said.
Instead, McCain said the United States “should confront China’s unfair trade practices, including its attempts to circumvent existing antidumping tariffs and its pilfering of American invention and innovation through coercion and outright theft.”
Under the tariffs plan, the president will have the discretion to add or subtract countries and raise and lower the tariffs at any time, a senior administration official said.
But Trump seemed set on his plan for now, saying he was eager to hear from other countries about what they would do to earn an exemption from the tariffs.
GOP Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), who has been outspoken about the damage the tariffs could cause, said that the exemptions for Canada and Mexico were a good step but the tariffs could cause an unwanted trade war.
“We’re on the verge of a painful and stupid trade war, and that’s bad. … Temporary exceptions for Canada and Mexico are encouraging but bad policy is still bad policy, and these constant North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is “nuts,” he said in a statement.
Some Republicans argued that the tariffs have the potential of nixing any boost to the economy from the recently implemented tax-cuts law.
“While I agree action should be taken to address overcapacity of steel and aluminum … the proposed tariffs would nullify the positive gains created by the recent tax reform package passed by Congress,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), who has urged the president to consider the importance of U.S. agriculture in the tariffs equation.
Republican leaders said they would continue to lobby the administration to narrow the tariffs and avoid retaliation from around the world.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said members of the Senate are concerned about the scope of the proposed tariffs and how they will affect U.S. businesses, consumers and his home state of Kentucky.
The European Union singled out Kentucky bourbon as a possible target for punishment for Trump’s tariffs.
“Important questions remain about whether ultimately these tariffs will be sufficiently targeted, tailored and limited,” McConnell said.
GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill have spent the past week sending letters and calling the president, urging him to make the tariffs targeted at the problem with China’s overcapacity of steel.
Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee that oversees trade matters, said the tariffs remain too broad and will hurt jobs.
“Anything other than a balanced and targeted approach will raise costs for manufacturers, slow our economic momentum, and let bad actors like China off the hook,” said Walorski who also sent Trump a letter earlier this week.
Other Republicans vowed to take action although it’s unclear what, if anything, the GOP-controlled Congress would be willing to do to blunt Trump’s tariffs or limit his ability to determine trade policy.
Minutes after the announcement, GOP Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) said that he would be introducing legislation to nullify the tariffs, saying “Congress cannot be complicit as the administration courts economic disaster.”
“I will immediately draft and introduce legislation to nullify these tariffs, and I urge my colleagues to pass it before this exercise in protectionism inflicts any damage on the economy,” Flake said in a statement.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced legislation last year that would give Congress oversight over any trade decision, including implementing tariffs.
A spokesman for Lee told The Hill that the Utah Republican “has talked with many of his colleagues about the bill” since the administration first floated the tariffs.
But any bill to rein in or override Trump would be all but guaranteed to draw opposition from the White House. And a likely veto threat would require it to ultimately garner the two-thirds support in both chambers — a potentially herculean task of a GOP-controlled Congress against a Republican president.