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United States

US Senate demands a say in Trump’s trade war decisions in mass protest vote over steel and aluminium tariffs

In a non-binding measure, the Republican-led Senate insisted on ‘a role for Congress’ in any invocation of national security

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 4:28am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 4:46am

The US Senate voted resoundingly on Wednesday to seek a congressional role in some of US President Donald Trump’s tariff decisions, a symbolic rebuke reflecting growing Republican alarm over the president’s trade war.

The 88-11 vote came on a non-binding procedural measure asserting “a role for Congress” when Trump imposes tariffs in the name of national security, as he has done on steel and aluminium imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union.

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The provision is toothless, but it represents the first concrete step by Republicans toward reining in a protectionist agenda that has upended decades of the party’s dogma in support of free trade.

Republicans have spent months wringing their hands over Trump’s trade moves and arguing against them in public and private, but have failed to do anything to stop them.

The measure was the second symbolic vote taken by the Senate against the Trump administration’s actions in as many days.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 97-2 for a resolution reiterating their support of Nato, ahead of the president’s trip to Brussels for a meeting with other members of the security alliance. Trump has often criticised other nations in the alliance and has raised questions about his commitment to keeping the US in it.

Supporters of Wednesday’s vote presented it as an important statement, and potentially a first step toward ultimately passing legislation giving Congress veto power over some of Trump’s trade moves.

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“This is a rebuke of the president’s abuse of trade authority,” said Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who is stepping down at the end of his term. “I’m so glad that Congress is finally, finally pushing back on this. We have neglected our constitutional role.”

Previous efforts by Republican senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania to hold a vote on legislation requiring congressional sign-off on national security tariffs have been blocked, in one case by Republican Party leadership. Corker and Toomey said they plan to keep trying and expressed hope that Wednesday’s vote would provide mo

mentum.

“It’s a baby step,” Corker, who is also retiring from the Senate, said of the vote. “I hope to have legislation coming behind this.”

It was far from clear, though, that the large number of Republicans who voted in support of Wednesday’s non-binding language would be willing to vote for legislation that would actually impose limits on Trump’s authorities on trade.

Some of the “no” votes Wednesday reflected reluctance among Trump’s most stalwart supporters to stand in his way as he hammers tariffs on US allies and on China that he says are aimed at levelling the international playing field on trade and helping American workers.

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“I just don’t understand sometimes why this body continues to tie the hands of this president at every turn,” said Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia.

“We need to give this president, and every future president, frankly, room to negotiate.”

Wednesday’s vote came on a procedural “motion to instruct” senators who will be working with House counterparts to reconcile an unrelated spending bill.

It asks them to “include language providing a role for Congress in making a determination under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.”

Section 232 is the provision of trade law that gives the president authority to unilaterally level tariffs if he determines that imports threaten US national security. Trump invoked Section 232 on May 31 when he imposed stiff tariffs on aluminium and steel coming from Canada, Mexico and the European Union.

The Trump administration is also weighing imposing tariffs on autos and auto parts under the Section 232 authority, a move some Republican lawmakers believe could be economically ruinous.

At the same time Trump has slapped a new round of tariffs on China, sending trade tensions to new heights – though those are not being done in the name of national security.