Most Ga. Republicans likely to stick with Trump in Mexico tariff fight

U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks during the GOP state convention in Savannah on May 18, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks during the GOP state convention in Savannah on May 18, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Don’t expect most Georgia Republicans to join the brewing Senate revolt against President Donald Trump’s plans to slap tariffs on Mexican imports.

Many of the state’s Republicans on Capitol Hill have signaled their support for Trump’s trade strategy, even as some have groused about the use and potential impact of the tariffs themselves.

"I think the president's doing what he has to do to get a level playing field on the trade issue,” said U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a vocal Trump ally.

Tariffs are "not my favorite tool,” the former corporate executive said Tuesday evening, “but I'm looking at this just like a soybean farmer. They hate having markets shut to them, but they look at the long-term benefit of getting a level playing field and say, 'okay, the benefit probably will justify or will justify the cost.’"

The White House has received no shortage of criticism from Perdue's Senate colleagues in recent days. Following a closed-door briefing with administration officials Tuesday, some Republican lawmakers suggested there were enough votes in the chamber to block the duties.

Trump surprised officials last week when he announced he’d impose a 5 percent tariff on all Mexican imports on June 10 unless the country acts to stem the flow of Central American migrants crossing the U.S. border. He said the levies would steadily increase to 25 percent until the issue was resolved.

The tariffs could have a major impact on Georgia. Mexico is the state's second-largest trading partner, with nearly 10 percent of the Georgia's exports heading south of the border. A 5 percent tariff would have an estimated $347 million impact on the state, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That number would rise to $1.7 billion should a 25 percent tariff go into effect.

Many Georgia Republicans, however, indicated they had little appetite to get in Trump’s way, even as they hoped the tariffs wouldn’t go into effect.

“We need to let this process move forward because he has been pretty successful in negotiating so far,” said U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville. “It would be devastating in some aspects to have tariffs go in, but I don’t think it’s up (to) us to come out right now and … stop the tariffs because that undermines his ability to use them as a negotiation tool.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, said the fight to him comes down to border security.

“I think the president’s doing everything he can to provide a safe country here,” Graves said. “He’s trying to do his job and the opposition party is just standing in his way, so I applaud him for looking for every way he can to protect our country.”

Over the last three years, Georgia Republicans have been unified behind Trump's agenda - all stuck with him this winter when both chambers voted to reject his border emergency. But trade has been the one sector where some have been willing to carefully criticize the president.

Most are free traders who see tariffs as a tax on consumers, and some have spoke out against the administration's steel and aluminum tariffs and Trump's proposal to impose duties on European auto imports. At the same time, cognizant of the president's iron grip on the party in Georgia, those lawmakers have been complimentary of Trump's overall goal of securing more beneficial trade deals for the U.S.

The most outspoken Georgia Republican has been U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. He warned earlier this week that the Mexico tariffs could hurt Georgia's agriculture industry and be "empowering" to people who "would like to see us fail."

“I will work with the president to do anything I can to help him get our trade situation in order again, our border security and all this other stuff,” the three-term senator said. “But if we're just going to pop around like a … June bug, we're not getting anything accomplished, and it's starting to show.”

It’s unclear whether the new tariffs will go into effect. U.S. and Mexican officials convened emergency talks in Washington this week to try and avert the duties, but Trump said Tuesday that it was “more likely” that the tariffs would be imposed next week.

Georgia Democrats, meanwhile, offered no shortage of criticism of Trump’s trade strategy.

“That’s typical of Donald Trump, coming in with a sledgehammer like a gorilla and trying to impose his will,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia. “That approach doesn’t work in life and it certainly won’t work with trade.”

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