Trade, infrastructure details split Tennessee Senate race

Phil Bredesen and Marsha Blackburn

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Marsha Blackburn talked up the need for more infrastructure cash and cried foul at President Donald Trump’s tariffs Wednesday. But the two were split on policy specifics during a Tennessee business forum in their rival bids in a key U.S. Senate race.

Blackburn took the stage first at Lipscomb University and said she’s “not a fan” of tariffs, including those imposed by her most prominent supporter, the president. She said there’s an “immediate short-term impact” that will hamper industries from farming to auto manufacturing, and many are seeking exemptions.

But the congresswoman was leery of legislation to limit Trump’s tariff power over national security claims. She cautioned to “tread lightly” on restricting presidential authority on national security issues, and told reporters that she expects there probably will be a “more thorough and complete discussion” on other legislation that could limit unilateral tariffs by the president.

On Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, for example, Blackburn reasoned that there’s a national security component because so few aluminum smelters and steel mills are still operating in the U.S.

“I think it’s so imperative that we have the ability to protect ourselves – food security, you look at manufacturing security,” Blackburn told reporters.

Bredesen, the former governor, has made his opposition to the tariffs a focal point of his campaign. He said he favors the legislation by retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker, whom Blackburn and Bredesen seek to replace. Corker has proposed requiring congressional approval for tariffs imposed as a matter of national security.

Bredesen cautioned, however, not to “limit the president’s authority in broad ways.”

In a key race that could upend a tight Republican Senate majority, Bredesen also backed an automatic increase in federal gas taxes to pay for infrastructure. He said gas taxes currently decline in value annually because of inflation. Bredesen said that some other ideas often floated are distractions, including accelerating permitting processes, development banks and public-private partnerships.

“The reality is, there’s some things that we’ve got to invest in and to do that takes money, and let’s talk about where the money comes from, and not sidestep the issue,” Bredesen said.

Blackburn wouldn’t commit to supporting fees or taxes, but said a commission should discuss a miles-driven tax and other ideas.

In what polls show is a close race, the candidates also stressed that they can be independent voices in Washington, which has been Bredesen’s key campaign theme.

Bredesen said being a Democrat is not a “religion,” saying he doesn’t believe that if Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gets mad at him, he’s “going to hell.”

Asked about possibly supporting a judicial nominee that other Democrats are opposing, Bredesen said, “If this turns out anything like my term as governor, I would say that’s more than a possibility.”

Blackburn, a close Trump ally, said “asserting my independence is something that I’ve never been really short on.”

She mentioned her fight against a Tennessee income tax proposal as a state lawmaker in the early 2000s, and said she challenged Trump on tariffs and opposed some spending measures.

Blackburn also used the forum to draw focus to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s recent endorsement of her. The chamber has been a loud opponent of Trump’s tariffs, and supports Corker’s effort to rein in the president’s tariff power over national security.

Bredesen said he’s not bothered by the chamber’s decision.

“I think it would be very difficult for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to endorse a Democrat in this race, just as a practical matter,” Bredesen told reporters.