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Congress Sternly Wags a Finger at Trump Over Trade

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) speaks to reporters as he heads to the weekly Senate Republicans policy luncheon, on Capitol Hill, on July 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) speaks to reporters as he heads to the weekly Senate Republicans policy luncheon, on Capitol Hill, on July 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)
Al Drago/Getty Images

This afternoon, the U.S. Senate officially voted to shoot Donald Trump a disapproving glare over this whole trade war thing. By a count of 88 to 11, the chamber backed a non-binding resolution affirming that Congress should have more of a say when the president tries to impose tariffs.

Non-binding is key here. While this may be the first, tentative baby step towards reining in the administration on trade policies, more likely, it’s nothing. Senators passed what’s known as a “motion to instruct.” It tells the committee working on an upcoming spending bill to include language giving Congress a vote when the administration tries to invoke its power under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion to raise tariffs for national security purposes. Section 232 is the expansive Cold War-era statute Trump has already used to unilaterally ram through duties on steel and aluminum, and possibly will use to do the same for cars down the line. It would be nice if Congress stepped in and tried to curtail those powers. But the committee does not actually have to follow on the motion’s command, so it’s purely symbolic for now.

Politically, though, this is a small victory for retiring Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who have been pushing for a vote on a bill to rein in Trump’s Section 232 powers. Until now, their efforts hadn’t gone anywhere at all. Republican leaders blocked their attempt to attach their legislation to a defense bill. Later, Sen. Sherrod Brown—the Ohio Democrat who supports Trump on trade issues—blocked their attempt to tack it on to the farm bill. In June, Flake threatened to block Trump judicial appointments if that’s what it took to get a vote on the issue (though, not his Supreme Court nominee). The non-binding vote seems to have been a small concession meant to pacify him for the time being. “It’s what I’ve been wanting,” he told reporters Tuesday.

While today’s motion passed with ease, it’s unclear how many Republicans would risk ticking off the president and his base by supporting an actual piece of legislation giving themselves power to block his tariffs. North Carolina’s Thom Tillis said today, for instance, that he backed the motion to “send a signal” on “issues related to trade,” but that he didn’t want to constrain the White House. “What we want to do is kind of set congressional intent,” he said. “The president is in the middle of trying to negotiate and bring to a close some of these things, and I don’t want to take tools off the table until we’ve seen how this is prosecuted over the next couple of months.” Meanwhile, the entire idea of checking the president already seems to be more or less dead in the House. “Yeah, I don’t want to hamstring the president’s negotiating tactics,” Paul Ryan said on Wednesday.

Keep in mind, Congress isn’t even debating whether to stop any tariff in particular at the moment. Members are just inching towards thinking about maybe giving themselves the ablity to do so, just in case. That’s how terrified Republicans are of arousing the president’s anger on an issue they supposedly oppose him on: They don’t even really want the option of taking a stand.