WASHINGTON — The Senate voted resoundingly Wednesday to seek a congressional role in some of President Trump’s tariff decisions, a symbolic rebuke reflecting growing GOP alarm over the president’s trade war.
The 88-11 vote came on a nonbinding procedural measure asserting ‘‘a role for Congress’’ when Trump imposes tariffs in the name of national security, as he has done with steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the European Union.
Although the provision is toothless, it’s the first concrete step by Republicans to rein in a protectionist agenda that has upended decades of GOP dogma in support of free trade. Republicans have spent months wringing their hands over Trump’s trade moves and arguing against them but have failed to do anything to stop them.
Supporters presented the vote as potentially a first step toward passing legislation giving Congress veto power over some of Trump’s trade moves.
‘‘Let’s be clear. This is a rebuke of the president’s abuse of trade authority,’’ said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. ‘‘I’m so glad that Congress is finally, finally pushing back on this. We have neglected our constitutional role.’’ Previous efforts by Republicans to hold a vote on legislation requiring congressional sign-off on national security tariffs have been blocked, in one case by GOP leadership.
‘‘This is a vote for Congress to assume its rightful role. It’s a baby step,’’ Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said. ‘‘I hope to have legislation coming behind this.’’
It was far from clear, though, that Republicans would vote for legislation that would actually impose limits on Trump’s authority over trade.
Some of the ‘‘no’’ votes Wednesday reflected reluctance among Trump’s supporters to stand in his way as he hammers tariffs on US allies and on China that he says are aimed at leveling the playing field and helping American workers. ‘‘I just don’t understand sometimes why this body continues to tie the hands of this president at every turn,’’ said Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia.
Some Democrats downplayed the significance of Wednesday’s vote, including Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, an outspoken supporter of Trump’s steel tariffs who has blocked action on the Corker-Toomey bill giving Congress veto power on certain tariffs. Brown said he voted in favor of the nonbinding measure because Congress ‘‘should have a role in all trade policy. I’ve been saying that for years.”
‘‘Let me be clear, though,’’ he said. ‘‘Today’s vote is not a vote for undermining the president’s trade agenda. It’s not a vote to rescind the steel tariffs.’’
Wednesday’s vote came on a procedural ‘‘motion to instruct’’ senators who will be working with their House counterparts to finalize an unrelated spending bill. It asks them to ‘‘include language providing a role for Congress in making a determination under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.’’
Section 232 is the provision of trade law that gives the president authority to unilaterally level tariffs if he determines that foreign imports threaten US national security. Trump invoked Section 232 on May 31 when he imposed stiff tariffs on aluminum and steel from Canada, Mexico, and the European Union.
Many Republicans argued the tariffs were an abuse of presidential power and lamented Congress’s decisions over the years to cede its constitutional authority over trade to the executive branch. Corker said no one ever anticipated that a president would use that authority the way Trump has done.
The tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the European Union have begun boomeranging to hurt US workers, costing jobs at a nail factory in Missouri where the costs of imported steel parts have become prohibitive, and prompting Harley Davidson to warn that it may have to move production facilities overseas.
The Trump administration is also weighing imposing tariffs on automobiles and auto parts under the Section 232 authority, a move that some GOP lawmakers believe could be economically ruinous.
At the same time, Trump has slapped a new round of tariffs on China, sending trade tensions to new heights — though those are not being done in the name of national security.