The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP lawmakers discuss vote to block Trump’s new tariffs on Mexico, in what would be a dramatic act of defiance

President Trump on May 31 threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports. The Post's Nick Miroff explains the significance. (Video: REF:AkhtarM/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Silbiger/The Washington Post)

Congressional Republicans have begun discussing whether they may have to vote to block President Trump’s planned new tariffs on Mexico, potentially igniting a second standoff this year over Trump’s use of executive powers to circumvent Congress, people familiar with the talks said.

The vote, which would be the GOP’s most dramatic act of defiance since Trump took office, could also have the effect of blocking billions of dollars in border wall funding that the president had announced in February when he declared a national emergency at the southern border, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are private.

Trump’s plans to impose tariffs on Mexico — with which the United States has a free-trade agreement — rely on the president’s declaration of a national emergency at the border. But the law gives Congress the right to override the national emergency determination by passing a resolution of disapproval.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said May 31 that Mexico needs to "do more" to stop the flow of undocumented migrants crossing into the U.S. (Video: Reuters)

Congress passed such a resolution in March after Trump reallocated the border wall funds, but he vetoed it. Now, as frustration on Capitol Hill grows over Trump’s latest tariff threat, a second vote could potentially command a veto-proof majority to nullify the national emergency, which in turn could undercut both the border-wall effort and the new tariffs.

Republican lawmakers aren’t eager to be drawn into a conflict with the president. But some feel they might have to take action following a growing consensus within the GOP that these new tariffs would amount to tax increases on American businesses and consumers — something that would represent a profound breach of party orthodoxy. Trump has said he would put in place 5 percent tariffs on all Mexican goods as of June 10, rising by another 5 percent a month until October, unless Mexico stops all illegal migration into the United States.

Some White House officials are aware that lawmakers are considering the tactic, but they have not yet decided how to respond. Trump had hoped that threatening to impose tariffs against Mexican imports would lead to major concessions from the Mexican government. But White House officials have not articulated exactly what they want the Mexican government to do, leading to a growing fear among some lawmakers that the White House will push forward with the tariffs when they are scheduled to take effect on June 10.

On Monday, lawmakers from both parties, including several top Republicans, warned that Trump was risking the destruction of a pending trade deal with Mexico and Canada by preparing to slap import penalties on Mexican goods.

The lawmakers urged Trump to abandon the planned tariffs. Otherwise, they said, the pending trade deal known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, will probably fail.

“I think this calls into question our ability to pass the USMCA, much less get it passed by Canada and by Mexico,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters Monday. “And so we need to put our heads together and try to come up with a solution.”

Republicans rarely have opposed the president in public in a way that would threaten one of his key agenda items. And the growing opposition by the GOP to the new tariffs marks a potential testing point between the president and his party. To date, Republicans have generally acquiesced as Trump has turned their traditionally pro-free-trade party upside down and imbued it with protectionist tendencies.

White House officials remained insistent on Monday that they won’t change course. They argued that the new tariff threat is unrelated to the pending trade deal, and they continued to demand that Mexico stop the flow of migrants into the United States.

“As a sign of good faith, Mexico should immediately stop the flow of people and drugs through their country and to our Southern Border,” Trump wrote on Twitter during a visit to London. “They can do it if they want!”

If Congress does not approve USMCA — Trump’s proposed successor to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement — he could face an embarrassing setback ahead of the 2020 elections. During his presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly vowed to replace the long-standing trade agreement between Canada and Mexico with a better deal.

Some Senate Republicans said they would wait for the results of a major meeting between Mexican trade officials and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday before deciding what to do.

But GOP lawmakers are growing anxious. “We have a lot of members who are very concerned, I think, about where this is headed,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). Thune added that if the tariff standoff continues, “Congress is going to want to probably be heard from” in terms of trying to limit Trump’s tariff authority.

Aside from a resolution of disapproval, other lawmakers have argued that Congress should pass legislation that would claw back tariff authority from the executive branch. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) has introduced a bill that would require congressional approval before a president imposes tariffs under the auspices of national security, and again on Monday made a case for his legislation.

“As a general matter, I think Congress has shifted and delegated way too much power to the executive branch over decades,” Toomey said. “This is not an observation about Donald Trump. That’s a general thing that Congress has done, and now we’re seeing the consequences of that in ways that nobody expected, nobody anticipated and, frankly, I think, many members of Congress don’t agree with.”

Trump’s surprise announcement last week about new Mexico tariffs stunned lawmakers from both parties, with many worried that it could lead to a spike in costs for U.S. companies and consumers and force Mexican leaders to pull back their support of the pending trade agreement. The United States imports close to $400 billion in goods from Mexico each year, making it a top trading partner.

The new tariff threat coincided with the administration sending to Capitol Hill a document that is a necessary precursor of a vote on USMCA as the White House pushes for action this summer.

Last year, the White House reached an agreement with the leaders of Mexico and Canada to rework parts of NAFTA, which Trump hailed as a breakthrough for U.S. companies and workers. But the deal can’t be rewritten without approval from Congress, and the White House had run into resistance from congressional Democrats who control the House of Representatives and demanded several changes to the agreement.

On Monday, House Democrats also warned that unless Trump backs down from his latest tariffs threat, votes would be hard to find if the deal ever does reach the floor.

“What he’s done, I think, is make it more of a chaotic situation, more difficult to get the votes even if we had made the changes, which we haven’t, in the new NAFTA,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, predicting that the timetable for a vote on the deal will slip into next year.

At that point, in the heat of a presidential campaign, many lawmakers think passing a massive trade deal would become all but impossible.

The prospect of congressional approval appeared to gain some steam when the White House agreed to lift steel and aluminum tariffs against Canada and Mexico several weeks ago, but last week’s tariff threat immediately stopped the momentum.

Since then, Republicans trying to persuade the president behind the scenes with one-on-one phone calls, replicating the strategy they used to talk Trump into ending the steel and aluminum tariffs he imposed on Canada and Mexico last year. Republicans had repeatedly made the case in private to Trump that those tariffs would imperil the prospects of ratifying his new trade deal with those nations, and Trump ultimately lifted those duties last month.

Cornyn expressed some hope that Trump still could be persuaded to change course on his latest tariff threat.

“We don’t even know what the president’s ultimately going to do,” Cornyn said. “I know he’s, sometimes in his frustration, expressed his intention to do certain things but after calm reflection and consultation with the members of the Congress has decided maybe to pursue a different course, so that’s what I hope would happen here.”

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told reporters on Monday that she had spoken to Trump about his tariff threat over the weekend and urged him to back down, but he appeared to be unmoved.

“He’s a tariff guy,” said Ernst, who added that she was “not pleased” about the tariffs.

Sensing the danger, the White House started damage control on Monday, though without showing signs of backpedaling. A senior administration official met with Senate Republican communications officials in the morning to help shape messaging on the issue and urge support for the new trade deal, despite the president’s proposal of new tariffs on Mexico, said a congressional aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks.

Yet for U.S. lawmakers, Mexican and Canadian officials, and many leaders in the business community, the new tariffs and the proposed trade deal cannot be separated so easily.

John Murphy, senior vice president of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that there has been “new momentum” behind the trade deal, especially after Trump recently lifted tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada and Mexico.

“But this latest tariff threat represents a major new obstacle to approval of USMCA, and the chamber is urging the administration to abandon this threat immediately,” Murphy said.