WASHINGTON — Warning of economic fallout, congressional Republicans and industry groups pressed President Donald Trump on Tuesday to narrow his plan for across-the-board tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum. They said the White House appeared to be open to changes that might soften the impact.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin called for a "more surgical approach" that would help avert a potentially dangerous trade war. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said there was concern Trump's plan could lead to such disruptive turmoil.
"We are urging caution," McConnell said.
Trump said Monday that he wouldn't back down from his pledge to impose tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum, and a White House official said Tuesday that Trump's "mind is made up" about those penalties. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
But Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, who opposes the tariffs, said after meeting Tuesday with White House chief of staff John Kelly that the administration was willing to consider his views. "Absolutely. There's an openness now," Perdue said.
"I think there's been a step back," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "I don't think he's reconsidering, but I think he's trying to figure out what his best step is forward."
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told lawmakers Trump was trying to balance protections for beleaguered steel and aluminum producers while "making sure that we don't do undue harm to the economy."
"We are not looking to get into trade wars. We are looking to make sure that U.S. companies can compete fairly around the world," Mnuchin said at a House hearing.
Trump has been keenly aware of how the tariffs may play in a March 13 special House election in western Pennsylvania, part of the nation's steel belt, White House officials have said. The president is headlining a Saturday rally in support of Rick Saccone, who is battling Democrat Conor Lamb in the Republican-leaning district.
The dispute over tariffs has exposed a rift between advocates of free trade, who have long dominated GOP circles, and a president who has railed against China and pushed for more protectionist trade policies.
Internally, White House officials who oppose the blanket tariffs have urged the administration to limit the countries that would be affected and to impose time limits. This would help the president say he delivered on his promise and still try to avoid possible negative consequences, said Stephen Moore, a former campaign adviser and now an economist with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Republicans in Congress and within Trump's administration say industries and their workers who need steel and aluminum for their products would be hurt by Trump's threatened tariffs. They say Americans will face higher costs for new cars, appliances and buildings if the president follows through on his threat and other nations retaliate.
Trump has said the tariffs are needed to preserve the American industries and protect national security. But he has also tried to use them as leverage in the current talks to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Business leaders are mobilizing against the tariffs. The Aluminum Association, a trade group representing 114 member companies with more than 700,000 U.S. jobs, told Trump in a letter Tuesday that it was "deeply concerned" about the effects of the planned tariffs and urged him to seek alternatives such as targeting China and other countries with a history of circumventing trade rules.