Republican senator's bill aims to reel in Trump's trade power

Canada's trade minister on NAFTA: We need a 'win-win situation'
Canada's trade minister on NAFTA: We need a 'win-win situation'

Donald Trump can get tough on America's top trade partners on Day 1 of his presidency.

Trump has threatened tariffs on goods coming from Mexico or China, and he doesn't need approval from Congress to do it.

On the eve of his presidency, his own party is trying to reel in those powers.

Republican Senator Mike Lee announced a new bill Thursday that would require Trump to go through Congress to use tariffs or to withdraw from free trade deals like NAFTA, the agreement between Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

Lee's bill, which is slated to be introduced Friday, is one of the most concrete signs of GOP opposition to Trump's trade agenda. Lee warns that Trump's threats to use tariffs and tear up trade deals would hurt the U.S. economy.

Related: Yes, President Trump could kill NAFTA

Raising tariffs "would wreak havoc on many small and midsize manufacturers in my home state of Utah and across the country that rely on imports and globally connected supply chains," Lee said.

Indeed, a new study from the Center for Automotive Research finds that withdrawal from NAFTA and a 35% tariff would be disastrous for the U.S. auto industry, leading car prices to spike and at least 31,000 U.S. auto manufacturing jobs to be lost.

Lee's bill does not currently have any co-sponsors.

Titled the "Global Trade Accountability Act," it would require the president to tell Congress about any trade action he wanted to take, present a cost-benefit analysis of the action and a time frame for it.

After that, both the Senate and House would have to approve the action, be it tariffs or withdrawing from a trade deal. Trump's spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Related: China's president says no one will win a trade war

Right now, Trump doesn't have to do any of that. Several laws over the last century have transferred trade power to the executive branch from Congress. Trump has wide ranging authority to take action on America's trade partners.

Experts aren't confident the bill has a chance to become law. However, a healthy discussion of the bill may affect Trump's narrative on using tariffs as a job-creating strategy.

"It's a useful shot across the bow, it's going to tell the president that this is going to be more difficult than he might think," says William Reinsch, a trade expert at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan research group in Washington.

If the bill passes, it would still allow Trump to use tariffs without Congress' approval for 90 days under several scenarios, where he determined a country's trade practices -- posed a threat to "national security;" created a "national emergency;" risked public safety; or broke the law.

So far, Trump hasn't shown any signs of complying with Congress on trade.

He wants to use tariffs. House Speaker Paul Ryan is not a fan of tariffs, and instead wants to use something called a border adjustment tax. Trump finds that option "too complicated."

Related: Mexico warns it will respond 'immediately' to Trump tariffs

Trump threatens to use a 35% tariff against companies and countries. For China, he's even threatened a 45% tariff, and his Commerce Secretary nominee, Wilbur Ross, didn't tone down that language during his confirmation hearing Wednesday.

Ross said countries that use unfair trade practices should be "severely" punished. He singled out China, labeling it "the most protectionist country in the world."

Lee, who Trump put on his list of potential Supreme Court nominees, emphasized that the bill was not solely meant to curtail Trump's trade power, but it is a part of broader push to transfer more legislative authority to Congress from the White House.

Trump's trade talk is already causing push back from China and Mexico. China's president, Xi Jinping, warned Tuesday that no country would win from a trade war. Last Friday, Mexico's economy minister said Mexico would respond "immediately" to a tariff.

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