Senate Republicans expressed growing concern Tuesday that President Trump’s escalating trade war with China is hurting their constituents in rural America, ratcheting up tension between the White House and Congress on a signature issue.
“I’m not sure if you talk to him face to face, he hears everything you say,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has emerged as one of Trump’s chief critics on trade and who said he planned to write to the president to explain farmers’ concerns.
But faced with the prospect that Trump will continue with his adversarial approach, Republican lawmakers are also looking for ways to provide a taxpayer bailout to farmers, perhaps adding billions of dollars to a disaster bill that has languished in Congress for weeks.
Fueling the concerns on Capitol Hill was the impression that Trump may not have a clear endgame. “Ultimately, nobody wins a trade war unless there is an agreement at the end, after which tariffs go away,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
The president last week more than doubled tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods, provoking China to retaliate with tariffs on U.S. agricultural and other products. Then Trump expanded the trade war further still this week, taking the first steps to putting roughly $300 billion in additional Chinese goods under import levies.
On Tuesday, Trump offered conflicting forecasts of what would happen next, predicting that a deal could be reached in a few weeks but also saying the showdown could last much longer.
In a series of early-morning tweets, Trump sought to reassure the public and investors spooked by the stock market’s worst one-day performance in months Monday, saying that he would strike a deal with China “when the time is right.”
But Trump also signaled that he was unsure what might ultimately happen.
“Hopefully China will do us the honor of continuing to buy our great farm product, the best, but if not your Country will be making up the difference based on a very high China buy,” he wrote on Twitter. “This money will come from the massive Tariffs being paid to the United States for allowing China, and others, to do business with us.”
The resulting impression was that trade policy was sharply zigzagging between calls for a return to the table and more negotiation, and preparation for further tariff pain.
Until last week, many Republican senators supported a tougher approach with China. But with Trump’s decision to increase tariffs, GOP lawmakers are now fielding angry calls.
Soybean farmers, pork producers and a growing number of other agricultural interests across a range of states — including cherry producers, corn growers and lobstermen — have complained that they are collateral damage caught in the middle of the escalating trade battle.
Vice President Pence met with Senate Republicans on Tuesday to try to assure them that Trump’s approach would result in a comprehensive trade deal benefiting U.S. farmers and businesses. But key lawmakers said they were still waiting for more information.
“We all want to know how this story ends,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) on Tuesday was asked by a reporter about the level of patience among farmers with the trade standoff. He held his thumb and index finger an inch apart.
“I’m very hopeful we can get back to the table,” he said. “There’s too much at stake.”
A number of other business groups have also raised alarms with lawmakers, saying their costs are jumping because it has become more expensive for them to bring products into the United States and more difficult for them to sell items in China.
While Trump has routinely vowed to find a way to placate farmers, initiatives have been slow to materialize. He has said, that the United States could buy crops from farmers and then donate them to poor countries. He has also talked about cash assistance and other measures, though he has not offered specifics.
Cornyn said the plans so far are “inadequate.”
Trump plans to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Japan next month, but lawmakers said Tuesday that they needed to assemble a package for farmers much sooner.
Trump last year directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spend $12 billion on programs to help American farmers affected by the trade war, and White House officials are now working with GOP leaders to find a way to extend an additional $15 billion.
Officials are considering an expansion of bailout funds from the Commodity Credit Corp., a division of the USDA that was created in the 1930s.
Trump used that program to help farmers last year, but there are limits to how much money it can borrow from the Treasury Department, and it could require congressional approval to allocate more funds.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who chairs the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, said U.S. officials were exploring a variety of options. He did not specify how much money would be directed to these initiatives, but he said some of it would be paid for with money that the Treasury Department brings in through tariffs on Chinese imports.
Trump has appeared unmoved by many of the business groups that have complained about his trade approach, but he has frequently promised to appease farmers.
Farm groups are among the most politically powerful in the United States, particularly in the Senate, where they have close ties to Democrats and Republicans. They have particular draw among top Republican lawmakers, including Grassley, Cornyn, Roberts and McConnell.
“The question of how this would be done, whether it would apply to wheat and corn and other crops and not just soybeans, is going to be a question that’s going to have to be answered,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
U.S. companies exported $9.3 billion in agricultural products to China last year, making it one of their largest markets. The biggest exports were soybeans, cotton, hides and skins, pork, and coarse grains like corn.
One option under consideration, buying U.S. farm products and giving them to poor countries, has been tried before with mixed success. Government officials have found that the programs are difficult to administer, in part because it can be hard to move crops on a large scale to developing nations.
There are also concerns that dumping large amounts of crops could disrupt local farming infrastructure, and some poor countries do not need certain crops that could be in abundance in the United States, such as soybeans.
In addition, Grassley said there are strict limits on how U.S. officials can donate food to poor countries. He said the way Trump has discussed it could violate World Trade Organization rules.
“It’s fair to say that I want to point out that there’s problems with what he’s planning to do, and he ought to take those into consideration,” Grassley said.