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Senate Republicans pan Trump farm relief, call for end to trade wars

Free-trade advocates call the one-time relief package for farmers hurt by tariffs "problematic to say the least"
by Leigh Ann Caldwell /  / Updated 

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WASHINGTON — Just hours after President Donald Trump tweeted that tariffs are “great,” Republicans on Capitol Hill were lashing out against the administration's new plan to help farmers hurt by the ongoing trade wars that have shut them out of international markets.

The $12 billion “temporary relief” announced Tuesday is once again pitting free-trade Republicans against a president who has ignored years of Republican orthodoxy on trade, tariffs and bailouts.

And the announcement comes just three months before the midterm elections as Republican candidates in red, rural states and districts have had to navigate a trade policy that has farmers growing more concerned by the day.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is chair of the Agriculture Committee, called the aid program “problematic to say the least.”

It’s “an acknowledgement” by the president that imposing tariffs “has a lot of unintended consequences that creates a lot of collateral damage," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

“When you start doing this, where do you stop?” Thune added. “This is not the right way to do this.”

The proposal, which is an attempt to offset the $11 billion of losses for soybean, cotton, sorghum, wheat, dairy and hog producers, is a “one-time” program to buy time while the president negotiations trade deals, a USDA official said.

Lawmakers say that they’d like to see resolution on ongoing discussions on trade agreements, including NAFTA. They added, in near unison, that the escalation of tariffs — and retaliatory tariffs — between the U.S., China, Europe and Canada are what’s most harmful.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said the president’s policies are “going to make it 1929 again.”

“You choose a war of choice, which is what this trade war is, and then you say afterward, let’s just solve it by buying people gold plated crutches?" Sasse told NBC News. "The farmers and ranchers of America, they don’t want crutches, they want to work."

“The key would be to open up new markets,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said. “Farmers like to say, ‘trade not aid.’"

And Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., called the program "welfare."

“Instead of offering welfare to farmers to solve a problem they themselves created, the administration should reverse course and end this incoherent policy,” Corker said.

While Republicans have complained about Trump’s trade war, they have done little to stop it. Congress gave the president authorization to tap into the USDA account in the omnibus spending bill passed earlier this year, according to Roberts' spokeswoman.

And a number of senators, including Corker, tried to put forward a measure that would give Congress oversight when the president invokes national security, also known as Section 232, as a reason to implement tariffs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., allowed a vote on a watered down version that has no teeth.

And on Tuesday afternoon, McConnell refused to opine on the $12 billion bailout. “Yeah I just heard about that. I’m going to have to take a look at it before I have anything further to say,” he told reporters.

Not all Republicans are opposed. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, called the handout "a good step."

"Our president stood up to a bully and now he is standing up for rural America so it’s a good move forward," Conaway said.

The administration has been pondering the farm aid for some time and the announcement comes just three months before the midterm election where Republicans are trying to pick up seats in red, rural states currently held by Democrats.

The issue has put Republican candidates in a difficult spot as they’ve not wanted to split with Trump, but are hearing from concerned farmers.

Roberts said politics likely played a role in the timing.

“I think it’s obvious that in farm country there’s a lot of concern, and those are the folks who brought the president home. And obviously if you’re adding up that kind of situation why — it would impact that,” he said.

In an interview just before the subsidy plan was made public, Indiana Senate Republican nominee Mike Braun said he was willing to give Trump latitude on his effort to force other countries to make better trade deals with the U.S., even if it means some short-term pain for the agricultural sector.

“I think even farmers that are now having the retaliatory part of it aimed at them are willing to let this play out,” Braun said. “And I think we’ve got to be smart enough to make sure that any certain sector of our economy is not disproportionately paying the price for trying to fix some of these embedded inequities.”

Asked whether that meant he supported subsidies in general, Braun said it did not.

“That would be something I wouldn't be for,” he said.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who is running for re-election in a state Trump won by 36 points, said the president should get some credit for trying to help farmers, but she added: “The best step he could take is getting rid of the tariffs.”

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