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Corker unveils bill to check Trump’s tariff authority, rebuffing a personal request from the president

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), in gray tie at left, listens to President Trump speak during a rally in Nashville in May 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) introduced a bipartisan bill Wednesday that would give Congress new authority to check the president’s trade moves, going forward with the legislation despite a personal appeal from President Trump to back off.

Corker’s bill would require congressional approval when the president enacts tariffs under the auspices of national security, as Trump did last week in imposing levies on aluminum and steel imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union.

The legislation, which Corker released with a total of nine Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, is the most forceful congressional response to date to Trump’s protectionist trade agenda. For the first time, at least some Republicans are uniting behind a concrete plan to force the president to change course on trade, after months of pleas and appeals achieved little.

The development comes as Trump prepares to travel to Quebec for a meeting of the Group of Seven nations, a gathering expected to include confrontations between Trump and foreign leaders — including close U.S. allies and major trading partners — over the president’s tariffs and other policies.

Trump attempted Wednesday to stave off the legislation. Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is not seeking reelection, said the president called him Wednesday morning and asked him not to file the bill.

But Corker rebuffed Trump’s request. “ ‘I’m a United States senator, and, you know, I have responsibilities, and I’m going to continue to carry them out,’ ” Corker said he told Trump.

Corker said that during a lengthy conversation, the president argued that the senator’s bill would limit Trump’s negotiating authority.

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“It’s a difference of opinion,” Corker said. “He feels that this takes away his negotiating ability, and this in no way takes away his negotiating ability. It’s not any different from him meeting with Kim Jong Un, and, if they reach a deal, him bringing it to the Congress for approval. I’ve explained it’s exactly the same thing.

“He’s obviously not pleased with this effort,” said Corker, who has clashed with the president in the past. “We had a heartfelt conversation. Finally, a lot of time had gone by, and I had other meetings.”

Corker is hoping to attach his bill as an amendment to an annual defense policy bill pending in the Senate. The bill’s prospects are unclear. Corker acknowledged that some Republicans are unwilling to cross the president, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has ruled out bringing up the measure as a stand-alone bill.

But Corker’s bill appeared to be gaining traction on and off Capitol Hill on Wednesday. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced its support, as did Koch Industries.

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Even as Corker released the bill, Trump was meeting at the White House with more than a dozen other Senate Republicans to discuss trade, the area where the president has departed most dramatically from long-standing GOP orthodoxy. The president used the meeting in part to underline his opposition to Corker’s legislation, attendees said.

“He’s the president, and I think he would like to have powers remain that allows him to negotiate, so that was kind of his message,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). 

The tariffs have sparked intense concern among congressional Republicans and an angry response from U.S. allies and top trading partners, and in recent days, lawmakers’ patience with the president has appeared to be wearing thin.

“There is a growing frustration that the administration is not listening to the concerns of the Congress on the tariffs,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) told reporters.

At the same time, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) played down prospects for a legislative response passing the House.

“You would have to pass a law that he would want to sign into law,” Ryan said. “You can do the math on that.”

Corker’s legislation would require the president to submit to Congress any proposal to adjust imports in the interest of national security. The legislation would qualify for expedited consideration for a 60-day period. It would apply to all future actions known as Section 232, as well as all those taken in the past two years.

The co-sponsors are Republican Sens. Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Mike Lee (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), along with Democrats Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Mark R. Warner (Va.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

“Tariffs are taxes on American consumers. They hurt American workers, families, and employers. Imposing them under the false pretense of ‘national security’ weakens our economy, our credibility with other nations, and invites retaliation,” Toomey said in a statement. “The decision to use these taxes should not be taken lightly or unilaterally. By passing this legislation, Congress can reassert its constitutional responsibility.”