Senate approves symbolic criticism of Trump’s tariffs following failed efforts to block them

A non-binding Senate vote underscores clear path for the president to unravel the GOP’s longtime embrace of free trade.

President Donald Trump is remaking the global trade order without significant political resistance or penalty, unchecked by a largely compliant Congress and bolstered by the loyalty of his supporters — even those likely to be hurt by his burgeoning global trade war. 

The Senate on Wednesday passed a nonbinding measure calling for a greater role in overseeing Trump's trade decisions, an implicit criticism of new tariffs the president has levied on some of the country's closest allies and largest trading partners. But the vote has no power to prompt a course change from the White House. And it follows failed attempts to advance measures that could have given Congress new power to restrain Trump. 

Congress' passivity in the face of Trump's escalating trade conflict is one of several factors that have made it easier for the president to push on. Others have included markets that haven't melted down, business leaders who have done little beyond rhetoric to criticize the trade spat, and Republicans voters who have stood by their president. In each of these cases, critics of his trade policy had hoped Trump would find reason to be dissuaded. 

The trade changes mirror Trump's rapid and similarly unchecked efforts to reposition the United States in the global political order. During his trip to Europe this week, the president has antagonized the country's allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while planning to meet later this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeking to tighten ties with a traditional U.S. rival. 

On trade, U.S. partners have retaliated with their own tariffs on U.S. goods, targeting GOP areas and inflicting pain on sensitive industries and areas that depend on access to foreign markets. New polling suggests, however, that Trump supporters in those areas are standing by the president. 

The parts of the country most affected by Trump's trade war remain supportive of the president for now. Among the 15 states most affected by the tariffs, Trump's approval rating is 57 percent, according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll. Trump won 52 percent of the vote in those states in 2016. 

Much of the pain has centered on soybean farmers, whose crops are exported widely and who've seen prices nosedive since the trade war intensified. 

"I am in Brussels, but always thinking about our farmers," Trump wrote on Twitter Wednesday. "I am fighting for a level playing field for our farmers, and will win!" 

Trump's unimpeded trade efforts could face more resistance, however, if disputes with allies intensify and more of their economic consequences hit home. 

Though Trump has been making trade threats since the start of his presidential campaign, the opening rounds of tariffs are only now taking effect. If the U.S. economy were to slow meaningfully because of the conflict, Trump could yet be forced to change course. 

But despite the escalating trade spats, markets have not cratered. While U.S. stocks slid on Wednesday, with the Dow Jones industrial average falling 219 points, markets have kept relatively calm in recent weeks even as the United States and China swapped punitive trade measures. 

Washington investment manager Michael Farr said after months of presidential outbursts, Trump fatigue is setting in among investors. 

"Wall Street seems to be beginning to get him," Farr said, saying investors had already largely priced in Trump's trade actions and aggressive statements. 

Senators looking to check Trump's trade agenda saw hope for more action after Wednesday's vote, when the Senate voted 88 to 11 to approve language asserting "a role for Congress" when Trump imposes tariffs in the name of national security, as he's done with steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico, the European Union and others." 

But one of the measure's strongest supporters, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., acknowledged following the vote that if measure had had teeth, it wouldn't have passed. 

"If we had had a binding vote today we wouldn't have won it," Flake said Wednesday. 

"Some are still giving the president some kind of license or leash here," said Flake, who's retiring at the end of this session. "But most of us think we know where the president wants to go. And it's not where we want to be." 

As the Senate suggests it should have more oversight, the administration has not paused in ramping up escalating trade disputes. 

Early this week Trump identified $200 billion in Chinese imports he'd hit with tariffs unless Beijing agreed to major trade concessions. The massive levies would add to the $34 billion in Chinese imports that Trump officially imposed new tariffs on earlier this month — a move that drew an immediate dollar-for-dollar retaliation from China. 

Tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports remain in place on most countries around the world, despite protests from Republican lawmakers and long-standing international allies. 

Trump's ability to unilaterally impose trade measures comes after Congress has repeatedly ceded its authority over trade through a series of laws and fast-track agreements. That approach worked well for congressional Republicans and other free trade advocates, as successive presidents negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and other pacts — until Trump arrived determined to ride roughshod over all of it. 

Many lawmakers of both parties believe Trump abused his authority in invoking Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which allowed him to unilaterally impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports after his administration determined they posed a threat to U.S. security. He's now threatening to do the same with autos, which lawmakers are warning once again could be economically ruinous. 

Trump's rejection of free trade is his most pronounced break from traditional Republican Party doctrine. But by most accounts the president cannot be dissuaded from the protectionist views he formed decades ago and made a centerpiece of his campaign for president. 

"He's very true to what he said he was going to do during the campaign for president," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. 

For months Roberts and other Republicans have been sounding the alarm about retaliatory tariffs on farm country and elsewhere, and warning that a trade war threatens the strong economy that will be the GOP's calling card in the upcoming midterm elections where Democrats will aim to retake control of Congress. 

A majority of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of trade and think escalating tariffs with China will be "bad" for jobs, according to the a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted from June 27 to July 2. There's more worry about rising prices -- nearly three-quarters of Americans believe tariffs will be bad for the cost of imported goods cause prices to rise, according to the poll. 

And even though Trump's support in the 15 states most affected by the trade war remains high, a majority of respondents in those states said they disapproved of the president's handling of international trade. 

But when people are asked what their top issues are heading into the mid-term election, trade is low on the list, below issues such as the economy, jobs, healthcare, immigration, guns, and taxes, according to the recent poll. 

That may be in part because most Americans aren't feeling the impacts of these higher import taxes yet. The tariffs in place so far — and the retaliation from other countries — will cost the average family about $80 more a year, according to economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics. Many large companies aren't even passing the higher costs on to consumers yet because they knew the tariffs were coming and planned ahead by buying supplies before the higher prices went into effect. 

"The impact is fairly negligible for most Americans right now," said Chris Ellis, director of the Survey Research Lab at Bucknell University. 

Phil Ramsey, chair of the Indiana Soybean Alliance membership and policy committee, said he speaks multiple times a day with other farmers and ranchers in his state. 

"Most of us farmers are extremely patient," said Ramsey, a 58-year-old soybean and corn farmer who voted Trump and attended his inauguration. "We dump hundreds of thousands of seeds and fertilizer into these fields. Then we wait for them to grow. We know it will happen." 

But farm-state lawmakers are cautioning Trump that voters' patience was being tested. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said trade was a constant theme in 10 county meetings last week in his home state. 

"People are very nervous, and they'd like to have me say 'well we're going have this settled by September the 15th or November the 15th.' I can't give them that assurance," Grasslet said. "I can just tell them the president's negotiating approach is the longer you negotiate the better deal you get. And so everybody's nervous and it's costing a lot." 

"I think as days go on, [there's] less patience" from voters with the president. "As time goes on, as prices go down, there's less patience."

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