Surprisingly, there is a way to break the partisanship that typically paralyzes the United States Senate. Efforts to help the United States compete with China apparently are enough to cut through the intransigence.
Last week, senators voted 68-32 in favor of the Endless Frontier Act, a combination of bills to spur innovation in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other areas.
The bill came through the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which is chaired by Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “We know that the research dollars of today are going to decide the jobs of the future,” Cantwell said on the Senate floor. “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.”
The bill was supported by all 50 Democratic senators and 18 Republicans — enough to pass the 60-vote supermajority required under archaic filibuster rules. But even that required intense haggling.
The original legislation called for an investment of $100 billion in research and development. That was pared to $10 billion and combined with other China-related measures for a total of $250 billion to be spent over five years. About $50 billion is earmarked for boosting semiconductor manufacturing, a major industry in Washington and Oregon. Other provisions invest in Washington’s aerospace industry and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.
The bill now heads to the House of Representatives, where its fate is uncertain.
Competition with China, the world’s second-largest economy, should motivate U.S. leaders to invest in high-tech industries and infrastructure. As columnist Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote recently: “The Chinese leadership has been massively investing for decades in roads, high-speed rail, airports, internet connectivity and basic research in critical technologies, while the United States rested on its laurels. The comparison isn’t pretty. It demonstrates to Beijing what Chinese leaders are already convinced of — that China’s authoritarian regime is destined to surpass a declining America economically and technologically.”
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal contains large investments in those areas. Congressional Republicans are threatening to reduce that investment, failing to recognize the economic challenge presented by the Chinese.
Following Senate passage of the Endless Frontier Act, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress said in a statement that the legislation is “full of Cold War thinking and ideological prejudice. … The bill attempts to exaggerate the so-called ‘China threat’ to maintain the U.S.’ global hegemony.”
That response was likely fueled by the fact the bill takes aim at unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft. The legislation directs the U.S. secretary of state to publish a list of state-owned enterprises in China that have used those tactics, and it seeks to strengthen partnerships with allies such as Japan and Australia.
Many of those steps would have been taken under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was negotiated late during the Obama presidency but then abandoned by leaders of both parties. Now, the United States is playing catch-up after four years of ineffectively trying to mitigate China’s influence.
While the Senate has been unable to reach agreement on voting rights or infrastructure or the investigation of an insurrection, the secret to bipartisanship is apparent: Identify a common threat.