Sen. Jeff Flake told CNN Tuesday he will lift the extraordinary holds he put on all of President Donald Trump’s appeals court nominations if he gets a vote on legislation that could make it harder for Trump to use national security as a reason to impose tariffs on other countries, as the President recently did against Mexico, Canada and the European Union.
“I want a vote on tariffs, a serious vote on tariffs,” said Flake, who like many free-trade Republicans on Capitol Hill has spoken out against Trump’s use of tariffs to punish other countries for what he describes as unfair trade practices.
Asked if he would lift his holds if he got such a vote, Flake replied firmly, “yeah.”
The Arizonan, a vocal Trump critic who is leaving the Senate, said he supports a measure authored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who is also leaving the Senate, that would require congressional approval if the President cites national security for sticking trade levies on other countries.
Corker is making a big push to get a vote on his measure as an amendment to a farm policy bill that’s on the floor now and leaders want to complete by the end of the week. Corker addressed his GOP colleagues at their weekly policy lunch and handed out data to support passage of his measure.
After the lunch, Flake said there was “no agreement” yet about having a vote and the issues related to his holds are “not resolved.”
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 GOP leader, said adding the controversial amendment could cause the President to oppose the farm bill and that he would prefer to see the Finance Committee deal with the issue, which Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who’s the influential chairman of the committee, has promised to do.
Cornyn said it is “still to be litigated” whether a vote happens this week and cautioned the amendment could be subject to “all the rules and procedures” of the Senate, a hint the measure could be defeated or set aside on a procedural vote.
Flake said he wasn’t asking for a guarantee his measure would pass but did make clear he would not be satisfied – and would not lift his holds – if it were defeated on a procedural vote, such as a motion to table.
When Corker tried to get a vote on the same legislation a few weeks ago, as an amendment to a defense bill, Trump called the senator and asked him to hold back. Corker’s amendment ended up running afoul of procedural rules in the Senate, a problem Corker said he won’t face on the agriculture bill.
While there is broad opposition to tariffs among Corker’s Republican colleagues, passing the amendment still could be difficult if Trump uses his powerful bully pulpit to work against it. Many Republicans are wary of openly challenging Trump, especially those seeking re-election this year.
“Pain is accruing. I think over time there will be a jail break and whether that happens this week or at another time, I’m hopeful we’ll be successful,” Corker said. “Intellectually, I think it’s a highly supported amendment.”
However, Hatch called Corker’s measure “too broad,” a possible sign resistance will build against it.
CNN reported last week that Flake, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, was readying to block of all Trump circuit court nominees, both in committee and on the floor over the tariffs and other issues. The move got the attention of GOP leaders – who raced to soothe his concerns – and Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who said he would not try to move any more appeals court judges until Flake had resolved his concerns.
Flake has significant leverage on the issue because GOP leaders would be unable to break a filibuster without his support.
Currently Flake’s holds are impacting 13 circuit court nominees who are awaiting confirmation hearings, votes in committee, or votes on the floor, according to a Judiciary Committee source.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Phil Mattingly and Ariane De Vogue contributed to this report.