Republican lawmakers on Monday pressured President Trump to reverse course on his plan to impose steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, arguing it threatens the U.S. economy and GOP majorities in Congress.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has lobbied Trump to reconsider the tariffs by sharing his concerns personally with the president “on multiple occasions,” according to his office.
“We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war and are urging the White House to not advance with this plan,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said in a statement. “The new tax reform law has boosted the economy and we certainly don’t want to jeopardize those gains.”
The House Ways and Means Committee also jumped into the fight, drafting a letter urging Trump to narrowly tailor the tariffs so that they only affect unfairly traded products. Members are in the process of collecting more signatures before sending the letter to the White House, according to a committee aide.
“The president has not made a final decision yet,” said Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who spoke with Trump twice last week. “I am continuing to reach out to the White House and the trade team … I want to continue to stay at the table to help him tailor this.”
The Senate Finance Committee sent a similar letter to the White House and a number of influential conservative outside groups, including Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, have ripped into the proposal in a frantic, last-minute push to convince Trump to either scale back or ditch the plan before it’s finalized.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the chairman of the Finance panel, expressed confidence that the maneuvers would persuade Trump to drop his tariff plan, which he blamed on protectionist advisers at the White House.
“Some of us have weighed in. ... I think he’s thinking it through,” he told reporters. “I think he’s shooting one across the bow and letting people know that we’re not being treated fairly.”
Yet all of the public pushback appeared to have little effect on Trump, who declared Monday that he will not reverse his decision to impose 25 percent tariffs on steel and 10 percent on aluminum.
“No, we’re not backing down,” Trump told reporters at the White House when asked about Ryan’s criticism.
The tariff spat marks a rare public break between Trump and Republican leaders in Congress, who traditionally support free trade.
Republicans’ pitch to Trump has largely focused on economic concerns. They say the proposed tariffs could send the stock market plunging and erase economic gains from the $1.5 trillion tax cut — two successes the GOP plans to tout in the upcoming midterm elections.
GOP strategist Doug Heye said “there’s no question” that the tariffs could undermine the party’s midterm message.
“Increased consumer costs because of tariff escalation hurt the positive messaging on the economy the party tries to focus on when tweets don’t get in the way,” he said.
U.S. trading partners are weighing retaliatory measures that appear to be designed to cause maximum political pain.
Harley-Davidson, which is based in Ryan’s home state, is facing retaliatory tariffs from Europe on its motorcycles. The European Union has also threatened to impose tariffs on Kentucky bourbon, a mainstay of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) home-state economy.
The White House has yet to officially announce the tariffs, which could be unveiled as soon as this week. Lawmakers and business groups hope to use the remaining time to persuade the president to scrap his plans, or at least create carve-outs for certain U.S. allies.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders left the door open to changes, including exemptions for friendly nations like Canada, saying that the details have yet to be finalized. But the spokeswoman also made it clear Trump has no plans to scrap the proposal entirely.
“The president wants to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect American workers and protect industries like the steel and aluminum industries,” Sanders said.
Trump also pushed back on the notion that the tariffs would hurt the economy.
“Our country, on trade, has been ripped off by virtually every country in the world, whether it’s friend or enemy. Everybody. China, Russia — and take people who we think are wonderful, the European Union,” the president said Monday in the Oval Office. “We lost $800 billion a year on trade. Not going to happen. We’re going to get it back.”
But Trump also reversed previous comments, saying, “I don’t think you’re going to have a trade war” as a result of the tariffs. Trump tweeted last Friday that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”
If Trump does move forward, congressional leaders may consider legislative action to stop the tariffs, according to one GOP source.
Under the Constitution, Congress has authority over trade issues. But lawmakers have passed multiple bills in the past ceding some of that power to the president when it comes to trade deals.
Trump invoked a rarely used legal provision that allows him to unilaterally impose the tariffs on national security grounds. The Commerce Department found that there was a national security risk to the U.S. because of its reliance on steel and aluminum imports.
Lawmakers could pass a new bill saying that Trump does not have the authority to levy the tariffs or attach a policy rider to a government-funding bill blocking the proposal. In order to overcome a presidential veto, two-thirds of Congress would need to agree.
But some members of Congress have already dismissed the idea of trying to rein in Trump’s executive power on trade.
“No, that’s clearly a trade promotion authority,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), referring to the process that makes it easier for the president to enter into trade agreements.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, does not believe GOP members will hold up Trump’s nominees over the tariffs.
It also remains uncertain whether Republicans would be united in blocking Trump’s proposal, even for lawmakers who oppose the tariffs.
Spokesmen for McConnell declined to comment, including on whether he has privately raised concerns with the White House. Speaking from the floor on Monday, McConnell made no mention of Trump’s looming tariffs.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Trump ally, said he has spoken with the administration about the tariff plan, which he would prefer to see far more targeted.
But Meadows, who predicted that there would be little appetite in Congress to rein in Trump’s executive power or take any other sort of legislative response, stopped short of directly criticizing the president.
“Criticizing a tactic is not something that I’m prepared to do as much as looking at the results and where we may end up,” Meadows told reporters on Monday evening. “I think it’s too early to judge how this may turn out, other than to know that there’s real discussions that have been happening over the last several days.”