China Bill Timetable in Senate Slowed by Wrangling Over Details

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s plan for the Senate to pass a sweeping bill this week to help the U.S. compete with China is being swamped by Republican requests for changes and additions that risks dragging out debate.

“This thing needs some work and I’m not sure we’re at the point where we can do what needs to be done” to get it passed, said Senator Jim Risch, the ranking Republican on Foreign Relations Committee. Getting to a final vote within days “is really ambitious,” he said.

The legislation -- totaling almost $200 billion and including $52 billion to bolster domestic semiconductor manufacturing -- has already been through a wringer of revisions as it was expanded and tweaked in the Commerce Committee.

But Democrats and Republicans still have to bridge some political differences, large and small, even as bipartisan concern about China’s rise has created broad Senate support for an effort to pour billions of dollars into technology and manufacturing research and development.

The bill’s also shouldering some of the burden of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal. In a counter-offer to Republicans on Friday, the White House said it was reducing the size of the president’s $2.25 trillion plan because some of the spending he sought for manufacturing and research and development had been incorporated into the Senate bill.

China Bill Timetable in Senate Slowed by Wrangling Over Details

‘Out-Compete the World’

Schumer, who developed the underlying legislation with Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana, has urged senators to quickly work through the bill, calling it “an extraordinary opportunity to set our country on the path to out-innovate, out-produce, and out-compete the world in the industries of the future.”

The Senate last week considered several amendments from both Republicans and Democrats, and it’s unclear how many will make it to votes. Senators are scheduled to be on a recess next week, so if they can’t finish by Friday it will be put on hold until the week of June 7.

One provision that’s garnered attention would provide $52 billion for incentives and programs to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing. Legislation authorizing the money was signed into law as part of the 2021 defense bill, but never funded. It’s gained greater urgency given the current global shortage of semiconductors. There’s also funding for a communications security initiative designed to counter China’s dominance of 5G networks.

An addition from Michigan Democrats Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow that would help the auto industry cope with chip shortages has become an obstacle to Republican support, because it includes a requirement that contractors on federal projects pay so-called prevailing wages to their employees.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican who sponsored the semiconductor funding legislation, took to the Senate floor last week to rail against the provision and warn that its inclusion could cost GOP votes. Cornyn today proposed an amendment to strike the prevailing wage requirement from the bill.

“We should not be bogged down by partisan or political points to be scored when, in fact, they really don’t make any difference to the semiconductor industry because they already pay high wages,” Cornyn said.

The Texan said there will likely be a vote in the coming days on striking that provision from the bill. But he wasn’t optimistic his side would prevail, given Democratic support for the wage stipulation.

Another potentially contentious vote may come on whether to remove a provision that would require the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, to scrutinize foreign gifts and contracts of more than $1 million to U.S. universities if they’re related to R&D of “critical technologies.”

Senators from both parties approved the provision as part of a Foreign Relations Committee bill, and argue that it’s necessary to safeguard U.S. innovation. But the measure is opposed by trade groups representing U.S. colleges and universities, which say it would make international research collaboration more difficult.

In addition, Risch, Cornyn and several other Republican senators are backing an amendment requiring the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to certify that anyone receiving money authorized by the legislation isn’t susceptible to foreign threats or influence.

Some of the proposed amendments are more political statements in nature. The Senate last week rejected one from Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin seeking to prohibit the cancellation of contracts for the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border begun under former President Donald Trump.

Virus Research

GOP Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, meanwhile, said he would introduce an amendment to block any U.S. funds going to research in China that would involve increasing the lethality of viruses, known as “gain of function” research. Although the National Institutes of Health released a statement saying its never funded such projects, Paul’s amendment is in part a reaction to theories that the Covid-19 virus escaped from a lab in China’s Wuhan province.

Prospects of the bill’s passage in the Senate remain good, even if Schumer doesn’t meet his timetable. Many of the provisions have already been vetted in previous years and have been thoroughly circulated.

“There’s bipartisan support,” said Republican Senator Steve Daines of Montana, a co-sponsor. “It will depend a lot on what the finished product looks like. I think it remains to be seen what happens with those amendments.”

Less clear is what will happen in the House, where the Science Committee is working on a re-authorization for the National Science Foundation that includes some similar ideas but is narrower in scope than the Senate bill.

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