Republicans are warning that President Donald Trump could face a shocking rebellion against him on the Senate floor if the president slaps Mexico with wide-ranging tariffs.
At a closed-door lunch Tuesday, two Trump administration officials laid out the president’s view: There is a crisis at the border and Mexico needs to stem the surge of migrants to avoid the new levies.
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But White House deputy counsel Pat Philbin and Assistant Attorney General Steve Engel faced brutal push-back from the GOP, according to multiple senators, with some threatening that Trump could actually face a veto-proof majority to overturn the tariffs.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters the party spent “almost our entire lunch” going back and forth with the administration and warned afterward “there is not much support in my conference for tariffs, that’s for sure.”
In March, 12 Republicans moved to reject Trump’s emergency declaration on the southern border, eight short of a veto-proof majority. But given the strong free-trade inclinations of the Senate GOP, the president could face a far larger rebuke if he ends up moving forward on the tariffs.
“The administration ought to be concerned about another vote of disapproval on another national emergency act, this time trying to implement tariffs. Tariffs are not real popular in the Republican conference,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who backed Trump’s first national emergency. “This would be a different vote… This would certainly give me great pause.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a close Trump ally, said that “a lot of Republican members of the Senate are tariff weary. It’s like: Anything but tariffs.” He said he could envision 20 Republicans opposing the president on the Senate floor if it came to that.
“The president has to consider whether or not a veto can be sustained. That would be a really good, important discussion for him to have with Republican members of Congress before going that route,” said Cramer, who was sympathetic to Trump and said lawmakers should lean on Mexican officials to avoid the political and economic calamity.
“When it comes to applying a tariff to Mexico, I for one would not support that. I do not favor tariffs being applied to friends like Mexico,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “If there’s a vote I think it’s a very difficult vote for those of us who oppose tariffs. I would not be inclined to vote [for] a tariff against a friend.”
Attendees said the Trump administration officials laid out two options: The president could use the existing national emergency declaration on the border wall to impose the new tariffs or he could declare a second emergency to unlock new tariff authority. But the officials did not definitively say what Trump will do and how he will do it, frustrating Republicans given that Trump has said he would make the decision in less than a week.
The administration is essentially in uncharted territory with its threats to use unilateral tariff authority, and Republicans left the lunch still confused about how the tariffs would be applied and the underlying legal reasoning behind them.
“No,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) of whether the White House had laid out a clear path forward. “Both bright guys, but they don’t have decision-making authority. What I’m hoping we can do is when the president gets back from the U.K. we can all sit down and try to figure out how to move forward together.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) also underscored the need to talk directly with Trump.
“The problem is we didn’t have the decision makers there. The president and half his cabinet is over in Europe, and obviously the clock is ticking. Time’s wasting,” Cornyn said. “What we need to do is get in front of the president and have that conversation.”
Kennedy is one of a handful of Republicans that have spoken to Trump directly about the tariffs, along with Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). Both said Trump seems unmoved.
In comments to reporters in London, Trump said the tariffs are “likely” to go in place next Monday and said that his party would be unwise to defy him, citing “tremendous Republican support.”
“I don’t think they will do that,” Trump said. “If they do, it’s foolish.
A veto override may be difficult to achieve.
There may not be 20 Republicans in the Senate who are willing to defy Trump, particularly as the GOP seeks to defend its majority and avoid primary challengers from the right. And getting more than 50 House Republicans to join them could prove even harder given the stronger support Trump’s hardball tactics have among the House minority.
But in the immediate term, Republicans want to avoid all that. This week, Mexican officials are engaging in breakneck talks with the Trump administration in advance of Trump’s self-imposed June 10 deadline for new tariffs.
Republicans say they are urging the administration to hammer things out to avoid raising prices on everyday Americans and slowing down the economy. But make no mistake: They’d also prefer to avoid another ugly clash with the president on the Senate floor.
“The main takeaway would be that there’s not much interest in using a tariff” for border security, said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who voted with the president on the national emergency earlier this year. “The legal thing came up and no one had an answer for that. But I think it’s secondary because I don’t think there’s a lot of interest within the Senate for a five percent tariff to be used for that purpose.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.