/Republicans at war over Trump’s tariffs

Republicans at war over Trump’s tariffs

Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said his caucus does not support President Donald Trump’s proposed tariffs on Mexico, though he did not pledge to help block it. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo

President Donald Trump’s threats to impose blunt new tariffs on Mexico has unleashed a circular firing squad among Republicans in Congress.

A bloc of Senate Republicans is threatening to put up a veto-proof majority to block the tariffs if Trump moves forward by using his national emergency powers. But most House Republicans and another faction of GOP senators say their colleagues are making a mistake by undercutting the president on one of his signature issues.

I’m disappointed that so many of my colleagues are quick to announce their opposition,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “By so publicly rebuking the president’s strategy you undermine the very leverage that could end this thing quickly. That’s the irony to me.”

The public split not only risks embarrassing the president and his party. It undercuts the shared goal Republicans have in avoiding the tariffs that Trump seems eager to deploy.

At issue is a conflict over strategy. Some GOP lawmakers hope to pressure Trump with the prospect of a rebellion that far exceeds the dozen defections on his national emergency declaration this winter, while others argue for a quieter persuasion campaign.

The dual approaches are scrambling ideologies and voting blocs on Capitol Hill. Take Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), both up for reelection in red-hued states but who have far different conclusions about the president’s tactics.

“I’m not in favor of this. The president needs to rethink it,” warned Ernst, who backed Trump’s national emergency on the border. “The president needs to understand that we’re opposed to these tariffs. We don’t think it’s a smart way forward. The president has his own opinion, he’s a tariff guy but I think we have a lot of folks in opposition.”

Tillis made clear his disagreement with his colleagues’ critiques of the tariffs.

“We’re making a mistake if we oppose the tariffs. Because we’re already seeing positive movement,” said Tillis, who vowed to oppose the last national emergency declaration before ultimately voting to uphold it. “You could lead Mexico to believe that all they have to do is wait out a resolution of disapproval. So I think it slows down the pace of negotiations.”

Tariffs are the longest-running GOP dispute with the president, particularly among Senate Republicans, and the president’s vow to impose 5 percent tariffs each month until Mexico tightens up the border has alarmed them more than ever given the broad economic impacts. Fundamentally, most Republicans hate tariffs and do not believe they are effective tools, and many would join Democrats to overturn a national emergency declaration from Trump.

“Why suffer a losing vote that maybe they’d put up here in the Senate?” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is close to Trump. “I think [new tariffs are] a bad idea and I think there’s a possibility that there could be a veto proof-majority,”

But congressional Republicans are not coordinating to send the president a unified message about what the consequences might be if Trump moves forward. Even if the Senate is able to muster 67 votes to override a presidential veto, it would be all for naught if the House Republicans are working in the exact opposite direction.

“There would be a few [Republicans voting against the president], but nowhere near the 55 threshold,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of Trump’s top allies on Capitol Hill. “Absolutely not.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not hide his caucus’ displeasure on Tuesday after meeting with Trump administration officials about the tariffs. After that huddle at a party lunch, McConnell observed that “there is not much support” in the Republican Conference for Trump’s proposal, though he did not pledge to help block it.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has acknowledged that his caucus shares the Senate GOP’s concern over the Mexico tariffs. But the California Republican has taken an entirely differently approach to the situation.

The GOP leader is not only urging his members to rally around the president, but he is even turning his fire on his Senate colleagues for undermining Trump.

“We should empower the president to be able to have a strong hand in negotiation,” McCarthy told reporters Wednesday. “If members here were undercutting him, it only hurts.”

“We should be united so there won’t be tariffs,” he added.

And it’s clear that Trump feels like McCarthy is in his corner. The president appeared to erroneously attribute a quote to McCarthy on Twitter that offered a far stronger defense of Trump than what McCarthy has actually said. McCarthy, however, did not push back.

The different approaches within the House and Senate GOP reflect a broader contrast with how Republicans in each chamber have dealt with Trump as well as their different incentives.

House Republicans have been far more reluctant to publicly rebuke the president than their Senate colleagues. Representatives are elected every two years, and those worried about job security have less room to maneuver politically. Most of them are more concerned about pro-Trump primary challengers rather than a Democrat in a general election.

“Republicans are primarily free-traders. Trump is obviously tariffing a lot of things, it’s hurting some of our producers, some of our manufacturers,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). “But he’s also well-loved in many districts. So it will be a tough vote for some folks… We struggle with this tariff issue.”

Senators, who serve six-year terms and represent entire states, seem to have far fewer reservations about panning Trump’s tariffs or going after him on other matters as well. And harsh tariffs on Mexico are far more alarming than the steel and aluminum tariffs on allies that Republicans have already repeatedly threatened to block.

“I’m not for the tariffs,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). The number of Republicans in opposition “is significant.”

“Tariffs are not the right way to go and there’s no reason that millions of farmers and ranchers and manufacturers and small businesses in Texas should pay the price and face billions in additional taxes,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

At the Tuesday lunch with administration officials, no senator spoke in support of the president’s position. But that doesn’t mean Senate Republicans are united. Far from it.

Some Senate Republicans are disappointed their colleagues are resorting to such public warnings. They feel that the president has tried everything he can on Mexico, with no help from Congress, so that panning the tariffs does little to make positive change.

“I understand what the president is trying to do, and I understand where he’s coming from. I would say to my colleagues and others: ‘If you have a better idea, fantastic,'” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

For McConnell and his deputies, the divergent views in the caucus makes for an awkward spot. Like McCarthy, they know their leadership roles mean they generally must be supportive of the president.

McCarthy, who has faced challenges from the conservative Freedom Caucus and could face a leadership fight one day from Minority Whip Steve Scalise, has clung particularly close to Trump.

But it’s clear Republican leaders don’t like the tariffs either. And the last thing they want to do is referee another intraparty feud about the president’s unilateral actions on the border as the primary season draws ever closer for their members.

“The message was pretty clear coming out of the lunch that there are a lot of concerns about it,” said GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the party whip. “Hopefully we’ll see coming out of the next couple of days whether or not this idea can be turned off.”