WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross defended the Trump administration’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum before Congress on Wednesday amid withering, bipartisan criticism from senators who called the levies unjustified and economically ruinous.
‘‘Know that you are taxing American families, you are putting American jobs at risk, and you are destroying markets — both foreign and domestic — for American businesses of all types, sorts, and sizes,’’ Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, told Ross at a committee hearing on the tariffs.
Ross countered, arguing that ‘‘actions taken by the president are necessary to revive America’s essential steel and aluminum industries.’’ He added that ‘‘allowing imports to continue unchecked threatens to impair our national security.’’
The tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum — levied on key US allies including Canada and the European Union — were initiated by the administration under a little-used provision of trade law that allows tariffs to be imposed on the basis of national security. The provision gives the administration more leeway to make trade policy unilaterally.
The tariffs are a culmination of the protectionist threats that President Trump campaigned on and mark the clearest dividing line between Trump and a Republican Party that has traditionally embraced free trade.
Meanwhile, the European Union will start taxing a range of US imports Friday. The 28-nation EU’s trade chief, Cecilia Malmstrom, said Wednesday that the bloc would introduce the tariffs on about $3.4 billion worth of US products. The tariffs, which had been announced earlier this year, had previously been expected to come into force next month.
The goods targeted include typical American exports such as bourbon, peanut butter, cranberries, and orange juice, in a way that seems designed to create the most political pressure on Trump and US politicians. Harley-Davidson is from Wisconsin, the home state of Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. And bourbon is a big product of Kentucky, where the Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, is from.
At the hearing, senators questioned the national security rationale of imposing high tariffs on friendly countries.
‘‘I wish we would stop invoking national security because that’s not what this is about,’’ Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said. ‘‘This is about economic nationalism.’’
Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a member of GOP leadership, told Ross, ‘‘This thing seems to be escalating out of control fairly quickly.’’
Despite the concerns, Republican senators declined to take what was likely their best chance to intervene when leaders blocked a vote on a bill by Toomey and Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, to give Congress veto power over tariffs invoked in the name of national security. Instead, many Republicans have said they believe their best chance of influencing administration policy is in trying to persuade Trump to back off his protectionist impulses.
As of June 1, the 25 percent tariff applies to imported steel products from all countries except Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and South Korea, according to a Finance Committee fact sheet. Imported steel products from Argentina, Brazil, and South Korea are subject to quotas that prohibit any imports above the quota levels.
The 10 percent tariff applies to imported aluminum products from all countries except Argentina, Australia, and Brazil.
In response, the targeted nations have announced a series of reciprocal tariffs and retaliatory steps, which senators said are causing prices to rise for US manufacturers and other businesses.
The administration’s tariffs against Mexico and Canada have been seen as an attempt to gain leverage as the administration renegotiates the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA is widely supported by congressional Republicans, most of whom do not want Trump to follow through on his campaign-trail threats to withdraw from the agreement. Negotiations have sputtered, but Ross expressed optimism that they would pick up again after the Mexican elections, and that the ultimate result would be an improved trade pact.
Some senators appeared skeptical as they questioned the administration’s tactics.
‘‘What is it about the Canadian steel industry that is a national security threat?’’ Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, asked Ross.
Ross acknowledged that, in terms of dollar value, the United States actually has a trade surplus in steel with Canada. But he said the administration’s approach is necessary to persuade other nations to help curb China’s practice of routing steel and aluminum to the United States through other countries.
‘‘The only way we’re going to solve the global steel overcapacity is getting all the countries to play ball with us,’’ Ross said. He contended that even as other countries are ‘‘complaining bitterly’’ they are also taking steps to put up barriers to China, which if taken earlier would have prevented the problems that Trump is trying to address.
Ross also argued that some price volatility is due to what he termed ‘‘antisocial behavior by participants in the industry’’ who are engaging in speculative activity. He announced that the department was launching an investigation to determine ‘‘whether there are people who are illegitimately profiteering.’’
Trump has also escalated his tariff threats against China, which Republican senators told Ross was triggering dangerously rising prices in agriculture over fears of retaliation.
Several senators told stories about businesses in their districts suffering from the tariffs who have applied for exclusions offered by the administration to companies that cannot get steel or aluminum from other sources. They barraged him with complaints about the exclusion process, which has been overloaded by demand and proven difficult for smaller businesses to navigate.
Senators also confronted Ross about the administration’s potential plans to impose tariffs on imported autos and parts, also in the name of national security.
‘‘There has been no decision made as to whether to recommend tariffs at all’’ on autos, Ross told the senators.
Hatch warned Ross against such tariffs, telling him: ‘‘A car isn’t a can of soup, Mr. Secretary’’ — a reference to a television appearance Ross made in March where he defended the steel tariffs while holding up a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup he said would cost only six-tenths of a cent more with the tariffs.Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.