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Republicans pray Trump holsters his tariffs


John Thune

“I don’t want to see tariffs as a tool for everything that could possibly go wrong,” said Sen. John Thune. | Pete Marovich/Getty Images


GOP senators warn the president’s agenda hangs in the balance.

Senate Republicans want just one thing when it comes to Donald Trump’s global trade war: a cease-fire.

It’s a move that would benefit not just their caucus, senators argue, but the president too.

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If Trump withholds new tariffs, he can reasonably expect Senate passage of his new North American trade deal this summer, assuming Speaker Nancy Pelosi budges in the House — still a big if. And if he imposes new tariffs, he could see a major effort to restrict his trade powers finally come to fruition at the hands of his own party.

Trump already got a taste of how Senate Republicans would confront him during his will-he-or-won’t-he vow to impose stiff tariffs on imports from Mexico.

Using the chance to approve a NAFTA replacement as a carrot and threats to block his Mexico tariffs as a stick, GOP senators last week helped stop 5 percent levies from being slapped on all Mexican goods. But Trump warned on Monday that “tariffs will be reinstated” if Mexico doesn’t follow through on his vague deal to stem the surge of Central American migrants, and senators take him at his word.

“If Mexico does not step up, I think the president will come back to it,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said. “I don’t want to see tariffs as a tool for everything that could possibly go wrong. I don’t think everything’s smooth. Mexico needs to step up.”

Meanwhile, there’s a short window to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement in Congress, one that will close — perhaps permanently — if the president unleashes any more tariff threats.

“It’s too hard to judge precisely where we are on that,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah.) said. “The administration also heard that Congress is not in favor of tariffs on friends … [and] the USMCA would have faced a real challenge here and perhaps in Mexico.”

The long-running dispute between Senate Republicans and the president came to a head last week when several Republicans predicted that the president could face jaw-dropping defections in the chamber on a vote to block any effort to impose those tariffs on Mexico. That too would have put approval of the new North American trade deal back on ice in the Senate, where Republicans wield considerable leverage.

For most of the year, the USMCA has been in severe jeopardy, not just in the Democratic House but in the Senate, where Republicans first threatened to stall any vote as long as steel and aluminum tariffs remained on U.S. allies. Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is continuing to devise legislation that would allow Congress to stop those types of tariffs, which were imposed on the basis of national security.

After wiping away the threat of the Mexico tariffs, senior Republicans said once again conditions are ripe for passage of the president’s chief trade achievement of this Congress. So they need to move quickly.

“To me it feels like the near-term issues have been resolved,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican whip. “I hope it removes any uncertainty about at least being able to get USMCA voted on.”

Yet what Republicans have learned after nearly 30 months with Trump in the White House is that the president can turn on a dime. The Mexico tariff threat was a perfect example: Trump’s tweet announcing the move to impose new tariffs without new immigration controls jolted nearly everyone in the Capitol and thrust Washington into a week of drama, even if some Democrats said they always thought Trump was bluffing.

“He made a bogus threat to impose tariffs, which the business community and Republicans in Congress rejected,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “And now the president claims a bogus agreement with Mexico which contains policies that Mexico volunteered to do months ago. Bogus, bogus, bogus.”

Yet Trump also experienced unprecedented Republican pushback: The party has not yet before offered to provide a veto-proof majority in opposition to his policies, a real escalation of the intraparty feud. But Trump seems unbowed, even threatening new tariffs on French wine on Monday.

“Without tariffs, we would be captive to every country, and we have been for many years,” Trump said on CNBC on Monday. “They take advantage of us in every way possible.”

The president sees tariffs as a blunt and unilateral tool that allows him to force foreign countries to take him seriously. Republicans said they have multiple fears about the specter that new levies could still be slapped on Mexico: That it would hurt USMCA’s support in Congress, that it could drive Mexico away from the agreement and that Republicans could mount an ugly rebellion in Congress against him.

Whether Trump would use the tariff threat again is only a matter of time, allies say.

“I’m certain of it,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said. “It’s always on the table with him as a strategy and when it works, it’s great.”

“He likes to use tariffs as a negotiating tool,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said.

Yet the blowback could only increase the next time the president brings them up. For one, any more significant delay could imperil the USMCA deal altogether. Pelosi is reluctant to bring it up in the first place, and Republican leaders have said that after the August recess the chance of approval decreases exponentially.

That’s because September will be filled with tough funding fights over the federal debt and government spending, all while the Democratic presidential primary heats up.

“I’m hoping we can get that back on track and done by the August break,” Thune said. “That’s the goal.”

Yet there’s plenty of time for the deal with Mexico to fall apart or for the number of border crossings to continue its steep rise.

So while Republicans wait for Pelosi to move, they’re keeping one eye on their own whip count and the other on Trump’s Twitter feed, wary that this week’s relative calm could be upended at any instant with the tariff threat roaring anew.

“We’ve been pretty clear on that topic,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, another GOP leader, said. “The president thinks that we’ve been very clear and that we don’t know what we are talking about.”

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