WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans are maneuvering to stop President Donald Trump from levying harsh tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, arguing that the move runs counter to the core of their economic agenda and could even cause political problems heading into the 2018 midterms.
"We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war and are urging the White House to not advance with this plan," AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement Monday. "The new tax reform law has boosted the economy and we certainly don't want to jeopardize those gains."
Members of the House Ways and Means Committee were also circulating a letter arguing against the tariffs, and high-ranking Senate Republicans have voiced their opposition.
It's unclear whether the GOP pushback will have any effect on Trump, who surprised fellow Republicans Thursday when he announced tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports. He has repeatedly defending the plans, including after the statement from Ryan's office Monday, when he said in Oval Office remarks that he was "not backing down."
For all of the controversies Trump has faced, the tariffs decision marks one of the few times he has taken a step that runs directly counter to Republicans' legislative and economic goals. Many Republicans have voiced concerns that the move will undermine the $1.5 trillion tax cut bill they passed in December.
They also said it could cause political problems ahead of this year's midterm elections. Democrats hope to take back control of the House and Senate in November, while Republicans planned to run on an economic argument to defend their majorities.
But it is difficult to predict how far Republicans would go to stand up to Trump, who remains popular with core GOP voters.
The tariff decision has not yet been finalized, but that is expected to happen in the next week or two. The goal of congressional Republicans is to keep that from happening; but if that fails, other options remain on the table, according to a congressional aide who spoke anonymously to discuss the private deliberations.
The Constitution gives Congress authority over taxation and tariffs, but Congress has delegated trade negotiation and tariff authority to the president over recent decades. Congressional leaders believe that approach has worked well – until now.
A spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said in a statement that "the administration and Congress must work together on trade policies that build off the momentum of the president's tax cuts, which is why any tariffs should be narrow, targeted, and focused on addressing unfairly traded products, without disrupting the flow of fairly traded products for American businesses and consumers."
Trump dismissed fears Monday that the trade moves could damage the economy.
"Our country on trade has been ripped off by virtually every country in the world, whether it's friend or anybody – China, Russia, people we think are wonderful, the European Union," Trump said while meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office. "We lost $800 billion a year on trade. Not going to happen."
Republicans and others have warned that major U.S. trading partners could retaliate by imposing tariffs on U.S. products, but Trump – who wrote on Twitter on Friday that a trade war would be "easy to win" – dismissed those concerns as well.
He added, in an apparent reference to the European Union, that "if they want to do something, we'll just tax their cars, which they send in here like water."
Trump on Monday further expanded his personal trade war, telling Canada and Mexico that he would only consider lifting possible tariffs on steel and aluminum if they concede to White House demands for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Like almost every broadside over trade war so far, his latest message was sent in a Twitter post with little explanation. He also demanded that Mexico do more to prevent drugs from entering the United States as one of the conditions for lifting upcoming steel and aluminum tariffs announced last week.
The measures hit Canada particularly hard. It is the top exporter to U.S. markets of both steel and aluminum. Canada is also the biggest importer of U.S. steel and aluminum.
The three NAFTA partners – Canada, Mexico and the United States – have been locked in talks aimed at possibly revamping the trade deal, but no clear framework has so far emerged. The latest round of negotiations is expected to wrap up Monday in Mexico City.
Last year, Trump ordered an investigation into whether U.S. reliance on steel and aluminum imports posed a national security threat to the United States, invoking a rarely used legal provision that gives him expanding trade powers. The Commerce Department found that there was a national security risk tied to the large amount of steel and aluminum imports, and Trump has vowed to use that decision as the basis for tariffs.
But he has not mentioned the national security element when discussing trade in recent days. Instead, he has accused Canada, Mexico and Germany of ripping off the U.S. based on the way they export goods to this country, which has long been his central concern.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump followed through on campaign promises to crack down on imports that he argues have decimated the U.S. manufacturing industry. But Trump's optimistic views about the impacts and outcome of a trade war are not shared by most lawmakers of his own party. Some remember the imposition of steel tariffs under the George W. Bush administration, which they argue cost more jobs than it created.
Indeed, GOP senators have spent months trying to argue Trump down from his protectionist views, and convince him to back off tariff threats and stay in the North American Free Trade Agreement. For now Trump has opted to try to renegotiate NAFTA rather than pull out of it, but his tariff announcement and subsequent rhetoric on Twitter suggests that congressional GOP leaders have only limited influence over Trump on the issue.
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The Washington Post's Damian Paletta and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.