WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's allies on Capitol Hill are scrambling to soften the blow from his trade war with China amid mounting anxiety from farm-state lawmakers that the protracted battle and escalating tariffs could irreparably damage their local economies.
Vice President Mike Pence met privately Tuesday with Senate Republicans for a second week in a row and urged them to stick with the White House. Senators were working with the administration to craft a relief package for farmers and ranchers, some $15 billion that Trump announced this week would be coming soon. Details of the package remained in flux.
“One thing I think we all agree on is that nobody wins a trade war,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the private lunch meeting.
McConnell said there was hope that the tough negotiating tactics being used by the administration “get us into a better position, vis-à-vis China, which has been our worst and most unfair trading relationship for a very long time.”
The administration on Friday launched a fresh round of tariffs on some $250 billion of Chinese goods; China retaliated this week with tariffs on $60 billion on American goods on top of those already hurting U.S. markets.
The tariffs risk spiking prices for U.S. consumers while leaving growers with commodities they cannot sell to the Chinese markets. Already soybean and hog farmers are among those home-state interests senators say are struggling under Trump's trade policies. With China talks stalled, senators pushed the White House to wrap up the negotiations and resolve the standoff.
Pence heard an earful from senators last week as uncertainty mounted.
“If this is what it takes to get a good deal, I think people will hang in there, but at some point we've got to get it resolved,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of GOP leadership. “If this goes on for a long time, everybody realizes it's playing with a live hand grenade.”
On Tuesday, though, senators appeared more reserved, and largely held their fire as they tried not to undermine the president's negotiating hand and worked to shore up their home-state communities with a new round of federal aid.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., the chairman of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, is working with the administration on the latest aid package. Last year, Congress gave the Agriculture Department some $30 billion annually that can be tapped to provide up to $15 billion Trump wants to offer as aid. Congress could advance some of the money by tucking it into a disaster aid package that's expected to be voted on next week.
The federal aid could go toward existing government programs, including those that provide market payments for certain agricultural producers or that fight hunger in poorer or war-torn countries abroad. Last year, the Trump administration made some $12 billion available to domestic producers of soy, corn, dairy, hogs and others hit hard by the retaliatory tariffs.
“We're stepping forward with more assistance,” Hoeven said. “The goal is to get a trade agreement.”
Trade is the rare issue in Congress that cuts across party lines. Several top Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, want the president to stay tough on China.
Other Democrats, though, doubt Trump's ability to negotiate a good deal. “The president is essentially betting the farm – somebody else's farm,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.