WASHINGTON — Lawmakers went on record Wednesday to express their frustration with the Trump administration's growing use of tariffs as the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution designed to give Congress more say about trade penalties imposed in the name of national security.
The measure, which passed by an 88-11 vote, directs Capitol Hill negotiators trying to reconcile separate spending bills to include language giving Congress a role when such tariffs are put in place.
Those negotiators are free to ignore the Senate's guidance, and the role that Congress would play would have to be worked out down the road.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who pushed the tariff language, acknowledged the effort is "a baby step."
But Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said the vote amounted to a rebuke of President Donald Trump's use of a national security waiver to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from China, Canada, Mexico, the European Union and other nations.
"We have to rein in abuse of presidential authority and restore Congress' constitutional authority in this regard," Flake said.
China's government vowed Wednesday to take "firm and forceful measures" as the U.S. threatened to expand tariffs to thousands of Chinese imports like fish sticks, apples and French doors, the latest salvo in an escalating trade dispute that threatens to chill global economic growth.
China gave no details, but it has plenty of options to retaliate that could extend beyond additional tariffs on U.S. imports. There are fears that Beijing could attempt to disrupt operations of American automakers, retailers and others that see China as a key market.
The United States complains that China uses predatory practices to challenge American technological dominance. Chinese tactics, the administration says, include outright cybertheft and forcing U.S. companies to hand over technology in exchange for access to the Chinese market.
A possible second round of tariff hikes announced Tuesday by the U.S. Trade Representative targets a $200 billion list of Chinese goods. That came four days after Washington added 25 percent duties on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods and Beijing responded by increasing taxes on the same amount of American imports.
The first U.S. tariff list focused on Chinese industrial products, an attempt to reduce the direct impact on American consumers.
The new list includes vacuum cleaners, furniture, auto and bicycle parts, French doors and plywood. It left untouched U.S.-branded smartphones and laptop computers.
The latest actions have fueled anxiety among lawmakers about a trade war that could hurt U.S. farmers and manufacturers. But the Senate resolution focused on a much narrower question: Should lawmakers have more say, or even final signoff authority, before the president imposes tariffs on national security grounds?
Corker's goal is to require congressional approval before such tariffs are enacted, but he has been unsuccessful in getting a vote on such a measure. He said Wednesday's vote tells him "that people believe [Trump] is abusing his authorities." Corker said he will keep pushing for stronger, binding legislation.
The 11 senators who voted against the measure were Republicans from states where Trump has high approval ratings.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) called on lawmakers to give the president "space" to negotiate better trade deals.
"The president is taking a different approach, sometimes controversial, but I believe he's a pragmatist. I believe he wants only one thing for America, and that's results and a level playing field with the rest of the world," Perdue said. "We need to give him space to succeed for the American worker and for our American companies here at home."
Still, the resolution's lack of teeth prompted even Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to support it. Brown has been one of the most vocal supporters of Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. He said he would do everything in his power to defeat any efforts to rescind them, but said he agreed that Congress should have a role when the tariffs are determined.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged lawmakers to support Corker's resolution but also pass "actual legislation" requiring congressional consent for the tariffs. The National Retail Federation said the Senate action showed the "growing bipartisan concern over the administration's reckless trade agenda as the real-world consequences of tariffs spread in communities across the country, according to David French, a senior vice president.
On the House side, a subcommittee scheduled a hearing next week on the impact tariffs are having on U.S. agriculture and rural communities. In a letter to Rep. Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Democrats urged him to bring in administration officials for a trade-related hearing because Americans need answers about whether the president's policy is working. The Democrats said the global economy is on edge and "we cannot pretend that this is business as usual."