WASHINGTON — In a rare bipartisan vote following weeks of haggling and delays, on Tuesday the Senate passed a roughly $250 billion bill aimed at boosting the U.S. technology sector’s ability to compete with China, a priority shared by the Northwest’s Democratic and Republican senators alike.
The 68-32 vote Tuesday evening came nearly a month after the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., approved the Endless Frontier Act, legislation to establish a “Technology Directorate” at the National Science Foundation and spur innovation in artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology and other areas.
“We know that the research dollars of today are going to decide the jobs of the future,” Cantwell said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “And we know that we all believe a significant increase in the investment in research and development dollars will help us spur innovation … and continue to be competitive in key sectors of our economy that are so important to us.”
In the weeks that followed, a scaled-back version of that legislation formed the foundation of a package that grew to encompass parts of several other China-related bills worth a combined $250 billion, most of which would be spent over five years. The Endless Frontier Act, which originally sought to invest $100 billion in research and development, was pared down to under $40 billion in new spending, with less than $10 billion of that money reserved for research and development.
The final bill would also send $50 billion to the Commerce Department to invest in domestic semiconductor manufacturing, a major industry in both Washington and Idaho, amid a worldwide chip shortage. Other provisions would invest billions in Washington’s aerospace industry and Department of Energy facilities, including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.
A flurry of amendments came from senators who saw a rare legislative vehicle for their own priorities related to China — however tenuously — including a measure from Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, banning the sale of shark fins, a popular soup ingredient in China. Other provisions came from bills championed by Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, both Idaho Republicans, aiming to counter the Chinese government’s theft of U.S. trade secrets and prevent the import of goods made through forced labor.
“As I have said for years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presents a grave threat to U.S. values and interests, and its malign influence across the globe puts our own freedoms at risk here at home,” said Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has made competing with China a top priority.
“This bipartisan, Senate-wide effort ensures the United States is positioned to compete on a fair playing field globally, especially with China,” said Crapo, the top GOP member of the Senate Finance Committee, who along with Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, the committee’s chairman, added their “Trade Act” in its entirety to the broader package.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who introduced the Endless Frontier Act a year ago with Indiana GOP Sen. Todd Young, urged senators to pass the bill before a weeklong break for Memorial Day, but a group of Republican dissenters forced him to delay the vote until after the week off.
“Around the globe, authoritarian governments smell blood in the water,” Schumer said May 26. “They believe that squabbling democracies like ours can’t come together and invest in national priorities the way a top-down, centralized, and authoritarian government can.”
Ultimately, the legislation is a sort of Rorschach test to Congress watchers: either an example of legislative dysfunction watering down necessary action or proof that lawmakers can still compromise and pass meaningful legislation, even when neither party gets everything it wants.
While President Joe Biden has signaled his support for the bill, its fate is unclear in the Democratic-controlled House, where Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., introduced his own bill to boost competition with China on May 25. The House and Senate have to pass identical legislation before Biden can sign it into law.
Voting against the bill were 31 Republicans along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Cantwell, Crapo and Risch all voted for the bill, as did Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who said in a statement, “This bill will help ensure Washington state remains a leader in innovation, research, and scientific achievement.”