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Looking for a ‘Huge Vote’ in Senate to Limit National Security Tariffs

Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley is working with like-minded senators on crafting a bipartisan bill to limit the president’s power to impose import tariffs in the name of national security. “We’ve got to get a huge vote on it, because it could be vetoed by the president,” said Grassley on Wednesday.

A month ago, the Finance Committee said Grassley was seeking bipartisan reform of Section 232 tariffs, which were created in 1962. President Trump invoked Section 232 a year ago to set high duties on imported steel and aluminum. Canada and Mexico, which account for one third of U.S. trade in food and agriculture, imposed retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods, including ag exports. The tariffs have become an obstacle to ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the proposed successor to NAFTA.

The starting point for negotiations among senators was a proposal to set a time limit on the duration of Section 232 tariffs subject to agreement by Congress to extend them. During that time, the administration would report on how well the tariffs had achieved their national security goals as well as on their economic impact. Asked if the legislation might apply to the tariffs already in place, Grassley said, “I don’t think there’s a conclusion on that.” Legislation usually applies to future events rather than reaching back.

Section 232 reform and USMCA ratification are separate issues, Grassley told reporters. However, Canada and Mexico have indicated that they will not act on the USMCA while the steel and aluminum tariffs are in force.

Congressional action on the USMCA won’t begin until House Democrats are satisfied that their objections are resolved, said Grassley. “I’m still willing to act as a go-between to get environment and labor and enforcement [provisions] satisfactory for Democrats to vote on it.” The Trump administration had hoped for ratification of the USMCA this spring, a goal that is slipping out of reach.

Separately, the White House confirmed that high-level U.S. officials will travel to Beijing for talks beginning on Tuesday to resolve the Sino-U.S. trade war. The talks would be followed by a round of meetings in Washington beginning on May 8. “The subject of next week’s discussions will cover trade issues including intellectual property, forced technology transfer, nontariff barriers, agriculture, services, purchases, and enforcement,” said the White House.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin will lead the U.S. side in the talks. As usual, Vice Premier Liu will be the head Chinese trade negotiator.

Grassley said if there is a resolution, he expected it would call for a gradual reduction in tariffs over time.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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