By Ginger Gibson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After months of waging a behind-the-scenes war against President Donald Trump's trade tariffs that have escalated far beyond what business groups once imagined, more than 85 U.S. industry groups launched a coalition on Wednesday to take the fight public.
The launch of Americans for Free Trade comes as Trump increasingly warms to using tariffs. He has imposed levies on billions of dollars worth of goods on trading partners, prompting retaliation against U.S. exports.
"A lot of other interest groups thought they wouldn't go this long or go this deep, but the layering effect (of tariffs) has finally gotten everyone to say: 'Enough is enough,'" said Nicole Vasilaros, the top lobbyist for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, whose members are weighing layoffs after costs rose as much as 35 percent.
The campaign will be multi-facted and include television and digital ads in addition to encouraging voters to talk directly to their member of Congress about trade, an effort organizers hope will convince lawmakers to fight the tariffs.
"There has been a lot of work that has been going on over the last eight months to try to persuade the president and the administration that tariffs are not going to work," said Dean Garfield, chief executive of the Information Technology Industry Council, whose members include Microsoft Corp and Apple Inc . "Our view is that it's not too late."
On the campaign trail, Trump threatened tariffs and ending participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership, a large multinational trade pact, and has delivered on those promises. He has also ramped up attacks on China, threatening car import levies and pushing for a more pro-American North American Free Trade Agreement, even at the risk of killing the three-country pact.
Trump has imposed 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods, mostly industrial machinery and intermediate electronics parts such as semiconductors.
A pending list of $200 billion worth of goods and the threat of another $267 billion would basically cover every Chinese export to the United States. Beijing has threatened retaliation, which could include action against U.S. companies operating in China.
The coalition is a joint effort with Farmers for Free Trade and will target Republican members of Congress in five states - Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee. All are places where the tariffs could dramatically impact the local economies.
While not engaging in electioneering ahead of Nov. 6 mid-term elections where control of Congress is at stake, it will urge constituents to discuss the trade issue with lawmakers, hoping they will convince Trump to abandon tariffs. The group believes the levies will undo the tax and deregulation policies that have helped boost the stock market and the economy.
It plans to expand that effort to a dozen states by the end of the year.
"The sugar high of the lower taxes and the reduced rules that have fueled the stock market since the president was elected are in jeopardy," said Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Technology Association, whose members include IBM Corp and Facebook Inc He warned that some of his members were also considering layoffs.
The Americans for Free Trade coalition grew out of weekly meetings featuring industries organized by the National Retail Federation (NRF), whose members include Amazon.com , Macy's Inc and Walmart Inc .
"This is almost every sector of the American economy involved," said David French, the top lobbyist for the NRF.
Hundreds of members of lobby groups have traveled to Washington to meet with lawmakers.
"They all found it very amazing how our specific industry has so much product ... on the list and we were able to open up how that affects our industry as a whole," said Tiffany Zarfas Williams who owns the Luggage Shop in Lubbock, Texas.
Steve Pasierb, head of the Toy Association, whose members include Mattel Inc , Hasbro Inc and Barnes & Noble Inc said members of Congress were slow to be persuaded
"It's been this kind of slow build that got worse and worse and worse," he said. "I don't think anybody in D.C. saw this coming."
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Peter Cooney and Susan Thomas)