Mitch McConnell schedules vote for Jeff Flake’s reform of Trump’s Section 232 tariff powers

Jeff Flake’s personal trade war, waged with hopes of imposing congressional oversight over President Donald Trump’s unilateral national security tariffs, could move closer to a resolution this week.

A non-binding resolution, that is.

Flake told reporters on Tuesday evening that the Senate would soon vote on a procedural tool to address tariffs, a long-held priority of his. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office later confirmed the vote would occur during a noon vote series on Wednesday.

In a conversation with reporters, Flake explained that the tool, known as a motion to instruct, would direct a committee of lawmakers who will work to reconcile differences between separate funding packages passed by the House and the Senate to include language that would give Congress a say in the White House’s national security tariffs. It does not have the force of law, and conferees don’t actually have to follow it if they don’t want to.

“This is non-binding. It’s the first step for this,” Flake said. “We’ll follow up with language, but we’ve just got to build the support for this.”

The retiring Arizona Republican also predicted the motion would receive support from majorities in each party. “It will get most of both caucuses. You may get a few hardcore protectionists on one side who may not vote for it,” Flake told reporters. “You may get a few on our side who think that it ties the hands of the president, but I think we’ll get almost everybody.”

The development comes two weeks into Flake began to pressure Senate GOP leaders on the issue by blocking Trump’s judicial nominees. He has been asking leadership to allow a vote on a bill introduced by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker that would require congressional approval for tariffs employed under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act.

Trump has made use of that provision, which is supposed to be used for national security threats, to impose sweeping tariffs of 25 percent and 10 percent on steel and aluminum imports from allies and foes alike, with similar action on automobile imports also in the works. While Republicans in Congress have been quick to criticize the tariffs, they have been reluctant to take legislative action in response.

But, amid rising frustrations among rank-and-file members about the exclusive amendments process, Majority Leader McConnell signaled a new openness to allowing a vote on Corker’s bill during an interview on June 27. Speaking with Politico Playbook’s Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, McConnell said that Republican senators had agreed not to block votes on each other’s amendments and added that he didn’t have a problem with Corker’s bill coming to the floor.

Yet when Corker subsequently motioned for his amendment to receive a vote, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown—one of Trump’s staunch allies on trade matters—objected and spiked the opportunity.

After that squashed attempt, Corker and his allies made clear they would nonetheless continue in their pursuit of the legislation. Prior to Flake’s announcement on Tuesday afternoon, Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey—one of the bill’s cosponsors—told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the group was still “discussing exactly what the right vehicle is and what the right timing is to have a vote.”

The fact that the vehicle they agreed to does not hold the force of law indicates the issue is far from over, especially because the measure does not address other unilateral trade authorities held by the president, some of which Trump is using to wage a trade war with China.

But Flake is happy to take what he can get. “It’s what I’ve been wanting,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Whether or not the conferees will heed the Senate’s instructions is another story.

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