(Bloomberg) -- A Republican-led effort to limit President Donald Trump’s ability to impose tariffs based on national security grounds was scuttled for a second time this month, after the president got some help from an unlikely ally: Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Brown on the Senate floor Wednesday blocked an effort to get a vote on a bipartisan measure that would give Congress the power to overturn tariffs imposed on security grounds, as Trump did with recent levies on steel and aluminum imports from Mexico, Canada and the European Union. GOP Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee wanted to try to attach the measure to a farm bill, but he needed every senator to agree for a vote to occur.
“We should not pit farmers against steel workers,” Brown said, arguing that Trump’s tariffs are “long overdue actions” helping a steel industry reeling from China’s unfair trade practices. Limiting Trump’s power could doom prospects of the farm-subsidy legislation that will require the president’s signature, Brown said.
Trump’s trade moves are scrambling the political order, as illustrated by Brown’s support of the president. Some Midwestern Democrats back the president’s steel tariffs while many Republicans and business leaders fight him. Brown, a progressive who is up for re-election in a steel state that Trump won by 8 percentage points, has found an issue where he can agree with the president.
Brown’s action drew an angry outcry from Corker, whose measure has 14 cosponsors from both parties and the backing of more than 270 business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Corker said senators should be asked to take a side on such an important issue impacting the economy.
The president has other powers to address China’s unfair trade practices that wouldn’t be affected by the amendment, Corker said.
“I don’t know what this body has become,” said Corker, who is retiring in January and is increasingly open about his frustration with Trump’s trade and other policies. “We can’t even vote on an issue that is current, that is damaging farmers more than 20 farm bills could help them.”
Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who is working with Corker on the issue, said Trump has abused his ability to install tariffs for national security grounds.
“We have this provision being invoked as a way to impose tariffs on some of our closest allies, closest friends and closest trading partners,” Toomey said.
The White House has been fighting back on the effort, and Trump met this month with more than a dozen GOP senators who back free trade. The president asked for their patience as he renegotiates trade deals including the North American Free Trade Agreement, receiving assurances from the senators that they would give him leeway.
Corker’s effort was also blocked when the Senate considered a defense bill this month. This second defeat likely moves the matter to the Senate Finance Committee. Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah said Tuesday he plans tariff legislation that would address concerns of free-trade lawmakers, although Toomey said he’s concerned that will take a significant amount of time.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky earlier Wednesday said he wants to examine Hatch’s plan, and said he shares concerns of other senators who are seeing home-state impacts from a possible trade war. He said Kentucky’s auto and bourbon industries are among those that could be hit with higher prices.
He also said he’s hopeful that Trump changes course on his own.
“I think the president is pragmatic,” McConnell said at a Politico event. “I think he will at some point here figure out whether this is working or not working, and do the right thing for the country.”
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