When President Donald Trump came to Wisconsin this week, he gave friendly shout-outs to the state’s most prominent Republicans.
But he also offered an unexpected hand of support to a big-name Democrat his party is trying to unseat next year, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
Trump endorsed Baldwin’s “Buy America” bill to require the use of U.S. steel and iron on some government water projects.
“I’m very much into that, and I agree with her 100%,” the president told WTMJ-TV’s Charles Benson.
“His support is very welcome, but it has to be followed up with action,” Baldwin said Friday, adding Trump should pressure GOP leaders of the Senate (Mitch McConnell) and House (Paul Ryan of Janesville) to get behind the bill.
Trump’s backing for the measure was a political surprise in one sense, since Baldwin is the No. 1 election target for the Wisconsin GOP in 2018.
But it also reflects the fact that on some issues, Trump appears closer to Democrats in Congress than he is to key Republicans. Those key Republicans include Ryan, who represents the district where Trump held his “Buy American and Hire American” event Tuesday.
“The president’s visit to Kenosha validated the fact that ‘Buy America’ is a bipartisan issue,” said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a partnership between the United Steelworkers union and American steel firms. The group is a leading supporter of those policies.
“It is one of a set of issues where the Trump White House and industrial-state Democrats can converge on — where their interests are aligned,” said Paul, who argued that Trump’s support will increase the pressure on Republicans who oppose “Buy America” rules to include them in any big infrastructure bills that come out of Congress this term.
In the interview Trump gave to Milwaukee’s WTMJ during his visit to Kenosha, the president was asked if he backed Baldwin’s bill to require the use of U.S. iron and steel on certain kinds of water infrastructure projects.
“Well, I do. I support the concept of ‘everything from the U.S.,’ ” answered Trump, who was in Wisconsin to promote a limited move of his own to encourage government procurement of American products.
Baldwin said she had a brief encounter with Trump a few weeks ago and mentioned her “Buy America” bill. She said Trump’s off-the-cuff response included the word “great,” but she did not take it at the time as an explicit endorsement.
“Buy America” provisions have historically drawn support from both parties. But in Congress, Democrats are generally united in support of them. The other two lead sponsors of Baldwin’s bill are Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, are more divided. Some conservatives view them as too costly and as distortions of the free market.
Baldwin’s proposal was part of a waterways bill that passed the Senate last year, but was pulled from the legislation in December by House Republicans. Among those lobbying against the “Buy America” language were foreign steelmakers and U.S. companies that buy foreign steel, according to press reports at the time. Ryan reportedly pushed to remove the provision.
As a result, what would have been a permanent “Buy America” rule (applied to water projects financed through a drinking-water loan fund) became a temporary, one-year rule.
Ryan’s office would not comment on the speaker’s views on “Buy America” rules, but pointed to its statement in December, when the office called the one-year provision “a compromise among all parties,” and said Ryan looked forward to creating jobs through “tax reform and regulatory relief.”
Baldwin called the removal of her provision in December “outrageous” and noted that it happened right after Trump, on a post-election “victory tour” in Ohio, declared that “two simple rules” would guide his effort to rebuild the country’s infrastructure: “Buy American and Hire American.”
Baldwin’s Wisconsin Senate colleague, Republican Ron Johnson, declined to comment through a spokesman on his views of “Buy America” provisions.
There have been few roll call votes in recent years on “Buy America” proposals. But in one of the rare examples, Johnson and most Republicans in the Senate voted against a “Buy America” rule for water projects in 2013. All but one Democrat voted for the provision.
In Kenosha, Trump complained that over the years, requirements for U.S. goods on government projects have been “gutted by excessive waivers and reckless exemptions.”
He signed an executive order Tuesday aimed at discouraging the use of waivers. Supporters of “Buy America” rules say the practical impact may be limited, though they welcomed the intent.
“We’re going to defend our workers, protect our jobs and finally put America first,” Trump said in his speech at Snap-on Tools, a stop that marked his first return as president to a state that helped put him over the top in the Electoral College.
Baldwin argued that “Buy America” policies help make up for the fact that foreign firms are given more opportunity to bid on U.S. government projects than U.S. firms are on government projects in other countries.
“We need a level playing field with foreign competition,” she said, noting that along with Indiana, Wisconsin is the state most reliant on manufacturing jobs.
“This is one of the areas in which we appear aligned,” Baldwin said of Trump, “but what I want is follow-up action.”
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