Senate China bill heads for next steep climb in House

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The Senate on Tuesday passed a massive bipartisan bill aimed at countering China’s economic and geopolitical rise — though it faces another uphill climb on the other side of the Capitol, where the House is already contending with challenges on the issue.

The Senate’s China competitiveness measure won final approval after months of committee work and weeks of partisan squabbles that ultimately forced party leaders to delay final passage of the bill due to last-minute GOP objections. The bill ultimately passed on a 68-32 vote — a significant win for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and his Republican counterpart on the effort, Sen. Todd Young of Indiana.

But the fate of the Senate’s rare cross-aisle collaboration is uncertain in the House, where Democrats are advancing several of their own bills to bolster U.S. competitiveness in science and manufacturing as well as to respond to Beijing’s human-rights abuses. That includes a 470-page bill drafted by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), for which he is working hard to secure GOP support.

The House is expected to take up those bills — which likely would be taken to the floor in pieces rather than as one package — in late June or July, according to a Democratic leadership aide. The next steps for the China legislation aren’t clear, however: Party leaders haven’t yet decided whether they’ll try to hash out the House and Senate differences through a conference committee, which would typically be the path to getting such a sprawling bill signed into law.

Schumer said Tuesday he has spoken with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and is “quite certain we will get a really good product on the president’s desk.”

In the Senate, progressives voted for the bill despite some objections and noted the House would likely impose its own “modifications,” in the words of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Warren voiced concerns with the Senate bill, including how some of the money is spent, and added: “We have to count on the House straightening this out.”

One of the biggest pieces of the House response would come from the Foreign Affairs panel, which includes new provisions on climate change and global vaccine distribution. Committee Democrats, led by Meeks, are negotiating on a nearly daily basis with their GOP counterpart, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas). And on Tuesday, Democrats moved to delay a markup on the bill — initially scheduled for next week — to buy more time for the talks, according to several people familiar with the discussions.

The panel’s Democrats have already agreed to some changes to their initial bill, including adding clearer language to call for a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in China in 2022, according to several people involved in the discussions. But Republicans say they will need more concessions to support the final version, such as stronger language in support of democracy in Taiwan.

“We appreciate that the chairman is working closely with us to address our concerns. We hope we can get to a strong, comprehensive and bipartisan bill to address the generational threat of the [Chinese Communist Party],” Leslie Shedd, the GOP spokesperson for the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

Democrats and Republicans on the committee are both hoping for conference talks with the Senate, which could produce final legislation to send to Biden for his signature.

The House Science Committee will also meet next week to advance a pair of massive bills that set aside $72 billion over five years for the National Science Foundation and $50 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

For some House Democrats, however, any bipartisan China competitiveness bill that can pass brings potential pitfalls that go beyond policy. Several Democrats, as well as outside groups, privately say party leaders need to be more careful about how they promote the bill, particularly in the Senate — arguing against any strong “anti-China” rhetoric that could prove unnecessarily inflammatory. (The China bill is advancing as anti-Asian hate crime rises in the U.S. over the last year amid the pandemic.)

Republicans, meanwhile, say they’re concerned that not all Democrats view China as a threat despite years of escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Despite those differences, the Senate’s work toward a bipartisan bill has been touted as proof that Democrats and Republicans can, no matter the broader bitterness in Washington, still find common ground on some issues.

The Senate bill, aimed at helping U.S. companies better compete with China, sets aside more than $250 billion for research grants and boosts semiconductor manufacturing, where the U.S. is falling behind Chinese production. It also outlines a strategy to address the national-security threats emanating from Beijing.

“When all is said and done, the bill will go down as one of the most important things this chamber has done in a very long time,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.

But it didn’t come without hiccups. Final passage of the Senate bill was delayed by nearly two weeks after a group of Republicans ground the chamber to a halt before last month’s Memorial Day recess. That obstruction forced Schumer to punt on the legislation even after a last-minute bipartisan deal had been struck on a key trade provision.

A significant cohort of GOP senators objected to the price tag of the bill as well as the process by which amendments were considered. And although the floor process was messy, Schumer won praise from many Republicans for making good on his promise to use the Senate’s regular order to pass the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the final bill was “incomplete” and “imperfect” because it left several GOP amendments on the cutting-room floor, but he acknowledged that it “includes several smart, targeted measures.”

“One thing this legislation did demonstrate extremely well, however, was that the rules of the Senate don’t stand in the way of bipartisan legislating,” McConnell (R-Ky.) added.

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