Republicans in Congress, which heretofore have been little more than walking rubber stamps for nearly all of President Trump’s controversial agenda, might finally be growing a spine.
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They sat by for a year as the president attacked immigrants, women, African American professional athletes, Muslims, and the rule of law – to name just a few. But now it appears that Trump has brazenly crossed a red on an issue of such moral importance to the American people that the GOP controlled legislature may finally exercise their constitutional duty to check the executive branch: Trade.
Traditionally pro-business and pro-trade Republicans were as upset as anyone when the president launched a trade war with Canada and the European Union last week, two of America’s most important economic and military allies. But Trump really ticked them off when he cited “Section 232” of the legislation that governs foreign trade, which gives the president the power to impose tariffs unilaterally if they are in defense of “national security.”
Now, finally, GOP Senators are pushing back. Led by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, they’ve introduced a bill to strip the president of much of his powers to impose tariffs on allies
In a statement announcing his bill, Sen. Corker said, “While we all agree on the need to ensure the international trade system is fair for American workers, companies and consumers, unfortunately, the administration is abusing the Section 232 authority delegated to the president by Congress.”
More from Senator Corker:
“Making claims regarding national security to justify what is inherently an economic question not only harms the very people we all want to help and impairs relations with our allies but also could invite our competitors to retaliate. If the president truly believes invoking Section 232 is necessary to protect the United States from a genuine threat, he should make the case to Congress and to the American people and do the hard work necessary to secure congressional approval.”
This isn’t an effort by some rogue backbench GOP rookie trying to make name for himself. Republican Senators Pat Toomey (R-PA), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Mike Lee(R-UT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) all publicly announced their support for Sen. Corker’s bill upon its release.
“There is no real national security threat that these tariffs are a response to,” Sen. Toomey said from the floor of the Senate. “They are an effort to impose a protectionist policy for economic purposes.”
In addition to injecting bone mass into the backs of GOP members of Congress, this issue looks like it might finally bring both parties together for the first time in the Trump era on a consequential piece of legislation.
Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Mark Warner (D-VA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) have all come out publicly for the bill.
The bill would change current trade laws by requiring the president to seek the approval of Congress when he wants to impose tariffs under Section 232 authority. This would essentially strip him of a major executive power.
Needless to say, President Trump is not happy. Soon after Sen. Corker announced the bill, he received a phone call from the commander in chief, and let’s just say, it wasn’t a call of congratulations.
“I talked at length with the president about it today. He’s obviously not pleased with this effort,” Corker told reporters. “But I am a United States senator, and I have responsibilities and I’m going to continue to carry them out.”
“I understand there’s a fear– fearful of the president, let’s be honest,” he told CNN in reference to his fellow Republican lawmakers. “On policy grounds, they strongly support this. But there are concerns about countering the president by some. … But there’s no doubt fear out there.”
Speaking of fear, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who’s stood up to President Trump more than most Republicans in the past (which is really not saying much at all), isn’t ready to stand behind his Tennessee colleague on this issue, at least not yet.
He met with the president Wednesday to express his concerns on the tariffs, and seems content that Trump knows what he’s doing.
“Now is not the time to undercut President Trump’s ability to negotiate better trade deals. I will not support any efforts that weaken his position,” he said after his meeting.
The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate foreign trade. In 1962 they passed the Trade Expansion Act that gave the president more tariff issuing power to negotiate deals and protect national security during perilous shifts in geopolitical realities.
So Sen. Corker’s bill calling for a rather modest correction of the Section 232 provision, and bringing Congress back into the fold on this issue, isn’t anything radical. It’s exactly how Congress should react.
Sadly, the whole exercise is almost doomed to fail. Even if Sen. Corker convinces enough Republicans to join what we can assume would be most Democrats in passing this legislation, the bill would still require Trump’s signature to become law.
One Republican he hasn’t convinced yet is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who told SiriusXM, “Yeah, I don’t think we need to be trying to rein in the president through legislation. No. 1, it would be an exercise in futility because he wouldn’t sign it.”
Futile as it may be, the fact that in 56 years, Congress has never felt the need to strip a commander in chief of his authority to impose tariffs – and one from their own party no less – speaks volumes.