Senate Republicans Warn White House Against Mexico Tariffs

WASHINGTON — Republican senators sent the White House a sharp message on Tuesday, warning that they were opposed to President Trump’s plans to impose tariffs on Mexican imports, just hours after the president said lawmakers would be “foolish” to try to stop him.

Mr. Trump’s latest threat — five percent tariffs on all goods imported from Mexico, rising to as high as 25 percent until the Mexican government stems the flow of migrants — has riled Republican senators who fear its impact on the economy and their home states. They emerged from a closed-door lunch in the Capitol angered by the briefing they received from a deputy White House counsel, Patrick F. Philbin, and Assistant Attorney General Steven A. Engel on the legal basis for imposing new tariffs by declaring a national emergency.

“I want you to take a message back” to the White House, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, told the attorneys, according to people familiar with the meeting. “You didn’t hear a single yes” from the Republican conference. He called the proposed tariffs a $30 billion tax hike on Texans.

Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, said he warned the lawyers that the Senate could muster an overwhelming majority to beat back the tariffs, even if Mr. Trump were to veto a resolution disapproving them. Republicans may be broadly supportive of Mr. Trump’s push to build a wall and secure the border, he said, but they are almost uniformly opposed to the imposition of tariffs on Mexico.

“The White House should be concerned about what that vote would result in, because Republicans really don’t like taxing American consumers and businesses,” Mr. Johnson said.

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, fretted, “We’re holding a gun to our own heads.”

President Trump, just hours before, said he planned to move forward with imposing tariffs on Mexican imports next week as part of his effort to stem the flow of migrants crossing the southern border.

“I think it’s more likely that the tariffs go on, and we’ll probably be talking during the time that the tariffs are on, and they’re going to be paid,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference in London with British Prime Minister Theresa May. When asked about Senate Republicans discussing ways to block the tariffs, Mr. Trump said, “I don’t think they will do that.”

He said, “I think if they do, it’s foolish.”

Republicans are still holding out hope that the tariffs can be avoided. Mexico’s foreign minister is leading a delegation to Washington this week to try to defuse the situation with the Trump administration.

“There is not much support for tariffs in my conference, that’s for sure,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said. “Our hope is that the tariffs will be avoided, and we will not have to answer any hypotheticals.”

Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said he “would not be inclined to vote on a tariff against a friend,” but ventured that “what you’re likely to see is the Mexican government and our government finding some way to work on this collaboratively and not reach a tariff.”

Others were less convinced.

“He’s committed to this,” said Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, who spoke with Mr. Trump on Sunday and was sure the president will proceed with the tariffs, regardless of the concerns. “He’s serious as four heart attacks and a stroke. He’s moving forward.”

Any vote to disapprove the tariffs would almost certainly face a presidential veto, meaning that both the House and Senate would have to muster two-thirds majorities to beat Mr. Trump. Opponents would use the same motion of disapproval that they tried to use to block the president from grabbing federal money for a border wall that was not appropriated for that purpose. That motion did pass Congress with significant Republican support, but not enough to overcome Mr. Trump’s veto.

Mr. Johnson warned White House officials that they should not count on a veto override vote going the same way. But Mr. Trump has supporters, and Republicans, especially in the House, have been loath to oppose him on immigration. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, once a moderate on immigration policy, took to Twitter to say he was within his rights to use tariffs to force Mexico’s hand.

Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, expressed support for the president, as did Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who is up for re-election in 2020 and faced blistering criticism after flip-flopping last year on whether he would vote to disapprove of the president’s emergency declaration to build the wall.

“I think Mexico could help us solve the crisis down at the border,” Mr. Tillis told reporters. “What’s the tax on handling 80,000 additional illegal immigrants coming across the border, housing them, adjudicating them? You’ve got to look at the total cost of the prices.”

Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters on Tuesday that House Democrats still “want to get to yes” on passing Mr. Trump’s new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, an updated North American Free Trade Agreement that could be torpedoed by new tariffs on Mexico. But he declined to forecast whether the House would try to block the tariffs that could stand in the way.

“The problem that we confront in this country is that the president often conducts himself in an erratic fashion as it relates to economic policy, particularly in terms of his deployment of tariffs,” Mr. Jeffries said.

He added: “The administration’s tariff policy is erratic and all over the place. We will see what the Senate Republicans ultimately decide to do, but we will certainly strongly consider proceeding in a way that is appropriate and consistent with our legislative powers.”

Mr. Trump seemed unimpressed when a reporter noted that Mexican officials say that they’ve increased the number of migrants they’ve apprehended coming into their country from elsewhere in Central America. He offered no specifics on what it would take to keep the tariffs from being imposed.

“Look, millions of people are flowing through Mexico,” Mr. Trump said. “That’s unacceptable.”

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