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Trump’s tariffs on Mexico mark the latest breaking point for Senate Republicans

They’ve made their opposition clear, but they’re waiting to see if Mexican officials can work things out with the White House.

Sen. Chuck Grassley speaking to reporters.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) speaks to reporters after the Senate voted to overturn the President’s national emergency border declaration, at the US Capitol on March 14, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Senate Republicans aren’t inclined to break with President Donald Trump on many issues, but his proposed tariffs on Mexico might become one of the latest times they do so this year.

Citing concerns over the impact that Trump’s proposed 5 percent tariff on Mexican imports could have on American consumers and manufacturers, not to mention the party’s once-robust stance on free trade, Republicans pushed back on the president’s plan, even as he warned them against doing so. Whether they take more concrete action to express these objections, however, depends on developments in the next few days, including a meeting between White House officials and Mexican authorities.

“There is not much support in my conference for tariffs, that’s for sure,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday, stopping short of endorsing measures that would convey this pushback. “Most of us hope that this Mexican delegation that’s come up here and discussed the challenges at the border ... will be fruitful, and that these tariffs will not kick in.”

The tariffs, which Trump announced last week, are set to go into effect Monday, June 10, and are intended to pressure Mexico into strengthening border security and curbing the influx of Central American migrants seeking asylum. If Mexico does not adhere to the White House’s requests on border security, the tariffs could go up to 25 percent over the coming months, per Trump’s plan.

Despite their longstanding alignment with the president on border security, many members of his own party aren’t exactly pleased with these tactics.

Senate Republicans see their constituents bearing the cost of these tariffs, and note that such moves could endanger negotiations over the USMCA, the Trump administration’s signature trade agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico that’s set to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). As Vox’s Dylan Scott reported, the Mexican tariffs could wind up costing up to a hundred million American households as much as $900 each per year, due to higher costs for a host of products.

“We are holding a gun to our own heads,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), an adviser to Republican leadership, told the New York Times. Cornyn, and fellow Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, are among those who have vigorously questioned the tariffs and argued that they could disproportionately harm residents of their state, who rely heavily on trade with Mexico.

Beyond some strongly worded statements, Republicans could also take action to push back on Trump, including passing a resolution that would block his ability to issue these tariffs. As McConnell noted, however, lawmakers are holding off on what exactly those next steps look like in the hope that the administration could work things out with Mexican officials on Wednesday.

“The Mexican authorities are obviously here for negotiations, so hopefully they can get a result,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) told Vox.

Republicans could rebuke Trump, again — this time with a veto-proof majority

Republicans have some big problems with the tariffs: They see them as an additional tax that Americans will have to pay on different products and also note that the proposed policy conflates the issues of trade and border security.

“Trade policy and border security are separate issues,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said in a statement last week. “I support nearly every one of President Trump’s immigration policies, but this is not one of them.”

“I’d rather not see the tariffs put in place, but I’m glad to see that [Trump] has strong leadership in this area,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who emphasized that he backed policies that would strengthen border security but wasn’t fond of this approach.

Such sentiments are shared by many members of the GOP conference, several of whom questioned the administration’s explanation of the tariffs when White House officials attended a Tuesday party lunch, according to the Times. As part of that meeting, lawmakers reportedly signaled that Trump could be at risk for another visible rebuke from his own party — and this time, they might just do it with a veto-proof majority.

While the procedure for imposing the tariffs is still somewhat unclear, it’s possible that the president would need to declare a new national emergency in order to implement them, CNN reports. Trump could also potentially amend an existing emergency declaration, such as the one he issued earlier this year to obtain funding for a wall along the southern border. In both cases, Republicans could theoretically support a resolution that would terminate the emergency declaration.

This is the same maneuver that was used in an attempt to block the border wall national emergency declaration in March. At the time, 12 Senate Republicans joined with Democrats to vocalize their concern, though it wasn’t enough support to override a veto. This time, however, given the GOP aversion to tariffs — coupled with previous concerns about the overreach of executive authority — it’s possible lawmakers could get the numbers they needed to pass this resolution with the votes needed to withstand a veto.

As always, however, it’s unclear how many Republican lawmakers would ultimately follow through.

Lawmakers are waiting on their next move — and they haven’t committed to following public outcry with action just yet

Despite their concerns, some Republican lawmakers are holding off on committing to next steps, hoping the issue resolves itself without more definitive input from them.

On Wednesday afternoon, a delegation of Mexican officials including Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard is set to meet with Vice President Mike Pence and other White House representatives in an effort to stave off the potential implementation of the tariffs, which would go into effect starting next week.

As they weigh different ways to register their disagreement, Senate Republicans are keeping a close eye on the outcome of this meeting.

“A lot of our members are hoping that these meetings [Wednesday] will lead to an outcome that doesn’t require them to execute on the tariffs. I’m hoping that they’ll have a constructive meeting,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the Senate majority whip, told The Hill on Tuesday.

Trump earlier this week cast doubt that there would be additional movement preventing the tariffs, though his administration has buckled to Senate Republican pressure in the past. Most recently, two people who had been floated as potential Federal Reserve nominees, Stephen Moore and Herman Cain, withdrew themselves from contention in the wake of Republican opposition.

“We are going to see if we can do something, but think it’s more likely that the tariffs go on,” Trump said during a press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday.

Senate Republicans aren’t eager for that to happen, though it remains to be seen what exactly they’ll end up doing about it.