Bill Clark/Zuma Press
WASHINGTON—A group of Republicans, most of whom are unshackled from the political consequences of opposing President
is leading efforts to curb his authority on national-security tariffs.
In the House, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill this week that would require the Trump administration to win congressional approval before imposing such tariffs. Among the bill’s GOP sponsors, two are leaving Congress at the end of the year, one is heavily favored to win re-election, and one hails from a district won by Democrat
Rep. Mark Sanford
(R., S.C.), one of the bill’s sponsors who lost a primary last month after repeatedly clashing with Mr. Trump, said that many other Republicans would support the bill if they didn’t have to worry about angering the White House.
“There are a lot of free-trade votes out there historically, and people are keeping their heads down given the current turn of politics we’re in,” Mr. Sanford said. “Midyears are coming and people can look at the handwriting on the wall—at my race—and other races like it. The party at this particular moment has shifted tremendously on trade,” he said.
In the Senate, two Republicans who are stepping down at the end of their terms,
(R., Ariz.) and
(R., Tenn.), have led the charge against the president’s trade policies. The pair wrote a nonbinding resolution calling for limiting the president’s ability to impose national-security tariffs, and it passed the chamber 88-11 on Wednesday—with 39 of the chamber’s 51 Republicans backing it.
“It’s a manifestation of the anxiety that a lot of our constituents are feeling,” said
Sen. John Cornyn
(R., Texas), the chamber’s No. 2 Republican. “I think it sends an important message.”
Still, the Republican leadership in the House and Senate have stopped short of considering legislation.
(R., Wis.) said Thursday that he wants to influence the administration’s trade policy informally. “I don’t think tariffs are a great solution. I think what’s more effective and constructive is to work with the administration to get the policy in a good place,” he said.
Mr. Trump has ratcheted up tensions after imposing tariffs on washing machines and solar panels in January, followed by universal tariffs on all steel imports in March, and last week, applied tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese goods, with an additional $16 billion to be applied in the weeks ahead.
When China responded with retaliatory tariffs of its own, the Trump administration this week announced it will begin the process of a new round of tariffs on Chinese imports valued at $200 billion.
China’s tariffs were specifically aimed at areas where Mr. Trump drew support in the 2016 election and where Republican incumbents are running for re-election this fall.
While many Republicans applaud Mr. Trump’s approach to trade, some lawmakers fear being forced to pick between protecting their constituents from economic harm or backing a president who is inclined to hit back at those who oppose him.
Charles Boustany, a former Republican congressman who now works on trade issues at Capitol Counsel LLC, said that House Republicans who must shore up support won’t vote against the president in an election year.
“The Republican base is still strongly behind Trump at this point,” he said. “Those who are up for re-election in the House don’t want to get out in front of the base.”
Indeed, many Republicans have expressed optimism about the administration’s trade policies. “I think there’s a lot of work happening behind the scenes that will produce a good result in the near term,” said
Rep. Mark Meadows
(R., N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) introduced the legislation, which is also sponsored by Mr. Sanford;
Rep. Ryan Costello
(R., Pa.), who is quitting this year; Rep. Leonard Lance (R., N.J.), who is running for re-election in a district that Hillary Clinton won by one point; and two Democrats. Mr. Gallagher is favored to win his re-election race and has a history of breaking from the administration.
Mr. Gallagher acknowledged that he is taking a risk with the bill. “I certainly would love an outcome where we increase access to certain markets for our farmers and our manufacturers,” Mr. Gallagher said. But that shouldn’t come at the price of forcing companies out of the business, he said.
Mr. Lance also said he is unconcerned about the politics of opposing Mr. Trump. “I speak for myself, I did not support the health-care bill or the tax bill and I am a free trader, and I will be judged based on my views,” he said.
At a House Financial Services Committee hearing Thursday with Treasury Secretary
who is retiring at the end of his term, opened the hearing by denouncing the tariffs.
“When the dust finally settles, the administration’s trade policy may prove to be brilliant, I hope so,” the Texas Republican said. But, in the short term, he said the company checkbooks for capital expenditures “are closing, and expansion plans are being put on hold as growing uncertainty creeps throughout our economy.”
—Kristina Peterson contributed to this article.