Trump trade policy forging strange alliances as Toomey seeks more congressional input

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Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., left, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with lawmakers about trade policy in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Washington.

A bill from Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania (left) — meant to send a message to President Donald Trump that the Senate is monitoring his invocation of tariffs — has passed the Senate, 88-11. The House will not take up the nonbinding measure. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump’s claim that he’s slapping other nations with tariffs as a matter of national security helped ignite an international war of words  following the G7 summit in Canada.

Meanwhile, in D.C., lawmakers continue to roll their eyes.

For months, Republicans have complained about what now seems to be a full-blown hostilities over trade, but few offered proposals to curb the president.

Now Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania proposes giving the Senate the final say on any new tariffs issued under the guise of national security.

“I think Congress should have some say in establishing tariff policy,” Toomey said.

Toomey, a key Trump ally who is a reliable vote for almost every aspect of his agenda, has ruffled West Wing feathers with this effort. Even the president has been working the phones, trying to talk Republicans out of supporting Toomey’s legislation.

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, the GOP nominee running for Pennsylvania’s other Senate seat this fall, called Toomey’s proposal is misguided.

“I think the president has done a good job in negotiating our trade deals, and I wouldn’t want to do anything to tie his hands. He’s been doing pretty good so far,” Barletta said.

Barletta, who represents Lancaster County and part of York County, said Trump needs space to work his deals.

“We’re not seeing the entire strategy and picture of what he’s trying to get at … negotiating on one deal, there may be a reason that there’s something else that the president is looking at,” he said. “I think we’ve got to let this president negotiate, see if we’re going to get better deals, if it’s going to be better for American jobs and manufacturing. Let’s see how it turns out. Our track record here in Washington has not been that good.”

Barletta offers South Korea as an example.

“The president was able to negotiate 30 percent less South Korean steel coming into the country [and] helping our steel companies,” he said. “I think that the president is doing a real good job. The trade deficit that we have shows that our deals in the past have not been so good, and I don’t want to do anything to tie this president’s hands.”

Barletta is facing off against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen Bob Casey. The two are light years apart on tax policy, health care policy and just about every other big-ticket item in Congress. But on trade, they’re actually fairly similar. While Casey is still studying Toomey’s proposal, he said he’s also wary of hindering any president on trade policy.

“I am very concerned about any bill that would prevent us from having effective trade enforcement,” Casey said.

Casey, a fierce critic of Trump, has applauded most of the president’s stands on trade.

“I’m happy that he’s trying to be more aggressive in terms of our trade enforcement, but he has at times implemented it in a manner that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Casey. “I mean, having Canada on the hook — for a lot of folks — doesn’t make sense.”

That’s why Casey and other Democrats are trying to nudge the president to be more precise in applying tariffs.

“I’m hoping the president will focus more intensively on China, the world’s greatest cheater. They cheat on intellectual property, they manipulate their currency, they cheat on trade deals, they take jobs away from Pennsylvania, they’ve attacked Pennsylvania directly with their Chinese army hacking of U.S. Steel,” he said. “On and on and on.”

On the other side of the Delaware River, the fight over tariffs is also creating strange alliances. U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur of South Jersey sides with Casey and Barletta, saying the nation needs a single point person on trade.

“I don’t think you  can negotiate trade deals by committee. And the Senate, in particular, has a horrible history of accomplishing anything,” MacArthur said.

But New Jersey Republican Leonard Lance, who supports Toomey’s initiative, argued that Congress must assert itself.

“I think that the Congress is a co-equal branch of government, and I am a free-trader,” Lance said.

The growing GOP frustration with the Republican president is nothing new, he added.

“I think there has always been a debate within both parties regarding the trade issue. From my reading of American history, this is not new,” he said. “I observe that it occurs not only in the Republican Party but in the Democratic Party as well.”

As it splits former alliances on Capitol Hill, Toomey’s bill could gain traction. On the other hand, if congressional leaders quiet the bubbling rebellion and show unified support of the president, it could fall by the wayside.

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