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Senate Takes Symbolic Step to Assert Power on Trade

Sen. Orrin Hatch said Wednesday that lawmakers “just can’t let presidents run off and do everything by themselves.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch said Wednesday that lawmakers “just can’t let presidents run off and do everything by themselves.”


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WASHINGTON—With the Trump administration announcing a new round of tariffs on China, the Senate took a symbolic step Wednesday toward asserting its power over levies that President

Donald Trump

has already imposed.

The vote was viewed as a gauge of whether the GOP-controlled chamber had the appetite to try to rein in the party’s leader.

Senators voted Wednesday, 88-11, to instruct the lawmakers appointed to iron out differences with the House over a spending bill to also insert a provision giving a role to Congress when the executive branch decides to impose tariffs on the basis of national-security concerns. The measure doesn’t offer any specifics about that role.

The nonbinding vote marked the first time the Senate went on the record over tariffs that have hit aluminum and steelmakers in Canada, Mexico and the European Union and potentially threaten overseas auto makers as well.

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“We have to rein in an abuse of presidential authority and to restore Congress’s constitutional authority in this regard,” said

Sen. Jeff Flake

(R., Ariz.), who, along with

Sen. Bob Corker

(R., Tenn.), was one of the authors of the measure.

The vote also exposed the turmoil among congressional Republicans over the Trump administration’s trade agenda. Wednesday’s vote was held the day after the U.S. announced planned tariffs of 10% on another $200 billion in Chinese goods, which the Trump administration announced Tuesday and which were invoked based on a different authorization.

Supporters expect that the vote Wednesday will lay the groundwork for stronger future action. Republican leaders such as

Sen. John Cornyn

(R., Texas) have said that Mr. Corker will receive a vote on a measure with more teeth to give Congress a say over national-security tariffs. Among the senators who plan to offer their own approaches is Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio).

“We got a strong vote for us to play a role,” Mr. Corker said. “Now, there will be competing bills coming out to focus on how we deal with this, but I think there’s tremendous interest in dealing with this issue.”

In the meantime, Republicans competing for Senate seats this November were reluctant to be too critical of Mr. Trump’s planned new tariffs on China.

“Let’s face it, China is not dealing fairly with us in trade,” said

Rep. Jim Renacci

(R., Ohio), who is hoping to capture the seat held by

Sen. Sherrod Brown

(D., Ohio), who generally has supported Mr. Trump on his trade agenda. “I’m not too comfortable with all the other ramifications, but at this point in time, I realize that he is in negotiations… I want to give him his opportunity to negotiate to get the best deal for American workers and then let’s see where we end up in a couple months.”

Backers of the measure had earlier attempted to wedge into must-pass defense and farm bills a provision that would have limited Mr. Trump’s power to use the 1962 Trade Expansion Act to impose tariffs based on national-security concerns.

But they were blocked by Republican leaders, then by Mr. Brown, and their efforts face an uncertain future given that many Republican leaders are reluctant to risk stirring Mr. Trump’s wrath. The instructions to conferees adopted Wednesday don’t have the weight of legislation.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman

Orrin Hatch

(R., Utah), whose panel oversees trade issues, voted yes on Wednesday but has expressed reservations about legislation that would tie the president’s hands more directly.

“They ought to give the president a chance,” he said, adding that “we’ll have to see” whether he would allow a committee vote on Mr. Corker’s original legislation. “I understand what he feels and I have some feelings that way myself that you just can’t let presidents run off and do everything by themselves.”

Similar tensions are building in the House. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced legislation to require the Trump administration to obtain congressional approval before imposing national-security tariffs. Similar to Mr. Corker’s bill, the measure would also be retroactive and cover national-security tariffs imposed in the prior two years.

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on Wednesday’s Senate vote.

Mr. Trump has privately expressed frustration over Congress’s ability to limit or override the power of the White House on national-security matters. He has said it has complicated efforts to exert what he deems as necessary pressure on U.S. allies—particularly those in Europe. Three people familiar with the details of these conversations said the president complained last year when Congress urged him to back a tough new sanctions bill that included proposed measures targeting Russia.

The president eventually signed the Russia bill but said, “As president, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”

The officials said Mr. Trump has renewed his anger over congressional oversight in recent weeks amid a bipartisan effort to push back on the president’s aggressive trade measures. The officials said Mr. Trump has told lawmakers in private that they have no right to enforce any such regulation, and that doing so would inhibit his ability to make deals that benefit the American people.

Mr. Corker Wednesday said the president has indicated that he is unhappy with his persistence. “He’s conveying it to many members,” Mr. Corker said, noting that 11 Republicans who support free trade voted against his measure. Speaking of the White House, he said that “it’s my understanding that they were very, very upset about what happened today..”

Republicans are nevertheless divided over how to proceed. Some Republicans have concluded that they must write legislation to restrict Mr. Trump. Others are reluctant to undercut his presidential authority.

House Speaker

Paul Ryan

(R., Wis.) encapsulated the dilemma.

“I don’t want to hamstring the president’s negotiating tactics, but I have long said I don’t think tariffs are the way to go,” Mr. Ryan said Wednesday. “There are legitimate, absolutely legitimate unfair trade practices, particularly by China that we and our allies should be confronting.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman

Kevin Brady

(R., Texas) said the House may take up legislation on the president’s national-security tariffs in the long term. For now, he said that the plan was to wait and see how Mr. Trump’s trade policy worked.

“Right now the focus, though, is how we buy time for the president’s strategy to work against China and critical to that is lifting the pain off our local farmers and manufacturers,” he said.

Write to Siobhan Hughes at

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