What Comes Next For The Effort to Curb Trump’s Trade Powers?

On Wednesday, lawmakers in the Senate voted to remind everyone that they have the power to hold President Donald Trump accountable on trade matters—but they stopped short of actually doing so.

The Senate voted 88-11 to pass a non-binding resolution expressing the sense of the chamber that Congress should have a say in national security tariffs imposed by the White House under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act. On its face, the vote could be taken as a stern rebuke of Trump’s protectionist impulses, such as his across-the-board tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. But legally, it has about the same level of impact as a strongly-worded letter.

And although the symbolic measure represents the strongest action Republicans in Congress have taken in response to Trump’s tariffs, the odds of Congress passing a corresponding law remain slim—a number of Republican senators who voted in favor of the resolution on Wednesday told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that they would not vote for the same bill if it actually counted, and even the legislation’s fiercest proponents acknowledge they don’t yet have enough support to pass a concrete solution.

“We couldn’t have won a binding vote today, but a couple of weeks from now we might be able to,” Arizona Republican Jeff Flake told reporters after the vote. “So we need to build support and this is a good first step.”

Flake recognized that the non-binding resolution is a long shot to become law. “No, no no,” the retiring senator responded when asked if he thought lawmakers would heed the resolution’s instructions. “We didn’t think they would.” But Flake said he was satisfied with the symbolic vote and that he would not block Trump’s judicial nominees going forward, as he has threatened to do in recent weeks. He added that he expects a vote on a version of the bill that has teeth in the near future.

When asked if Republican leaders had given him assurances that such a vote would take place, the retiring senator admitted he had received “no assurance there.” Still, he argued that the non-binding resolution had accomplished something by forcing Republican senators to take a public stance, one way or another, on the legislation. “We put members on record supporting Congress having a role,” he said. “Now, once you vote that way, how can you say to your constituents, ‘Well, when it’s real, I’m not going to vote this way?’”

But on Wednesday, a number of Flake’s colleagues were quick to say that they would not support the legislation if it were “real.”

North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis, who voted in favor of the symbolic measure, said that he agrees with Corker’s general policy aims—so long as they’re non-binding. “What we want to do is kind of set congressional intent,” he told TWS. “The president is in the middle of trying to negotiate and bring to a close some of these things, and I don’t want to take tools off the table until we’ve seen how this is prosecuted over the next couple of months.” South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds voiced similar reservations. “What we’re trying to do is express a sense of the Senate,” he said of Wednesday’s vote. “In this case, we have not tied the president’s hands, but we are expressing a point of view that is an important and appropriate way for the Senate to react.”

As for future action on a more substantive version of Corker’s bill, Rounds was skeptical. “I don’t think that that’s appropriate, when the president is actively engaged in a foreign affairs discussion, that we mandatorily try to direct him as the executive,” he remarked.

Others, such as Nebraska senator Deb Fischer, opted to avoid the question. Fischer said she would have to look at the timing of the bill and the way it was drafted before deciding whether to give it her vote. Majority Whip John Cornyn also offered an ambiguous response. “I think we expressed ourselves in the motion to instruct,” he said, before adding that the Senate should go back to the drawing board on the legislation by beginning at the committee level.

Still, proponents of rolling back Trump’s trade powers argue that Wednesday’s vote was an important first step in building support for Corker’s bill. Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey told TWS that shoring up a coalition wouldn’t happen overnight, but the effects of Trump’s ongoing trade wars could add urgency for members who may be on the fence.

“The damage being done by this trade war is going to mount. It’s going to become increasingly obvious to people. And my suspicion is that that will put political pressure on members of Congress to do something about the fact that their constituents are losing jobs, being forced to pay higher prices and having fewer economic opportunities,” Toomey said.

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