As President Donald Trump this week threatened $200 billion in new tariffs on Chinese imports, and then warned Europe that he would slap a 20 percent tariff on imported automobiles, members of both parties in Congress accused the administration of starting a trade war which could cause collateral economic damage across the United States.
The differences were on display at a hearing Wednesday with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who took a bipartisan tongue lashing on a recent round of tariffs levied on imported steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and Europe.
"We're picking winners and losers," argued Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who said those tariffs were already hurting businesses in his home state.
"Probably resulting - in my view - in far more jobs being lost than being gained," Toomey told Ross, citing a very well-known Pennsylvania company that could find it less expensive to move jobs from the U.S. to Canada.
Almost every Senator on the panel had a story of a small business that was feeling the pinch due to Trump Administration tariffs, impacting all sorts of agricultural products, as well as manufacturing, big and small.
"Do you think we're in a trade war right now?" asked Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA). "Because I do," as Cantwell rattled off farm products that were losing markets because of retaliatory tariff measures.
Ross downplayed the cost of higher imported steel and aluminum, basically making the case that economic hardships were being overplayed.
"It's a fraction of a penny on a can of Campbell's soup, it's a fraction on a can of Budweiser, it's a fraction on a can of Coke," Ross said.
That did not please the Senator from the state of Coca-Cola.
"Although a couple of pennies on a can is not much, a couple pennies times a billion is lots," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA).
"We're hit harder than any other state by the Canadian retaliatory tariffs," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), warning the Trump Administration against tariffs on imported automobiles, as GOP Senators labeled such actions a tax on consumers.
"Steel prices are going up - not just for foreign steel subject to tariffs, but also for U.S. steel," complained Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT).
"Mexico's buying their wheat from Argentina and their corn from Brazil," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), as he told Ross that Kansas wheat exports were encountering troubles because of new retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports, bringing bad economic news on the farm report.
Ross simply told Senators if other countries put new tariffs on U.S. exports, that was out of his control.
"We have no control over what another country does in retaliation," Ross said.
The bipartisan complaints clearly had no impact, as by Friday, President Trump was on Twitter, issuing new threats against European auto imports.
As Democrats registered their opposition, they also couldn't help but note the oddity of a Republican President going against what's been a bedrock belief of the GOP.
"I feel like I've gone down a rabbit hole," said Sen. Clare McCaskill (D-MO), who said she found it hard to believe the party of free trade now had a President in office who was doing the exact opposite.
"In a chaotic and frankly incompetent manner, you're picking winners and losers," McCaskill told Ross.
But for the President, this is about re-setting trade deals, which he says were tilted against the United States.
"As far as trade is concerned with other countries, we want fair and reciprocal trade, we don’t want stupid trade like we had for so long," the President said at a rally in Minnesota.
"Remember the world reciprocal," Mr. Trump said. "We have been ripped off by almost every country on Earth, our friends and our enemies."
"But those days are over," the President said to cheers from the crowd.
But while they're cheering Mr. Trump on the stump, at the U.S. Capitol, they're worried about a trade war.
"We're getting into a war that's going to cost lots of billions of dollars," Isakson warned.
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