The vote was another instance of the Senate declining to assert authority over Trump administration decision-making on trade-related issues. Earlier this week, GOP leaders blocked an amendment by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that would have given Congress veto power over certain tariff decisions by the administration.
And a fight is looming over the Senate’s attempt to enact tough penalties opposed by the administration on the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE. That legislation has been included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which is headed toward Senate passage in coming days, but the White House announced Wednesday that it intends to try to kill the ZTE measure when a final compromise defense bill is written by House and Senate negotiators.
The Toomey legislation Thursday involved the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, an interagency body chaired by the treasury secretary that conducts national security reviews of attempted takeovers of U.S. firms by foreign companies. Toomey wanted to give Congress a vote on major CFIUS regulations.
“It’s a simple question of whether we think that we ought to be accountable, that we ought to take authority for the legislative authority we delegate,” Toomey argued ahead of the vote. “A ‘no’ vote is really a vote to shirk our own responsibility.”
But talking points circulated by the Trump administration to Senate offices argued that Toomey’s legislation “could potentially result in CFIUS being unable to establish regulations, thereby undermining national security.”
Democrats also opposed Toomey’s move, noting that it derived from a long-standing drive by conservatives to rein in the rulemaking authority of the executive branch on various fronts, long predating the Trump administration and ranging well beyond CFIUS.
The underlying defense bill includes language to expand the purview of CFIUS so that its jurisdiction goes beyond deals where a U.S. firm would be acquired by a foreign one. Under the proposed Senate changes, CFIUS would also be able to review other types of transactions where a foreign firm is trying to acquire a stake in a U.S. company.
That change, supported on a bipartisan basis, reflects senators’ concerns about China’s spreading influence and attempts to obtain access to U.S. technology and businesses.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who supported the provisions expanding CFIUS’s jurisdiction, said that Toomey’s legislation could end up having the opposite effect by making it harder for U.S. regulators to stop potentially dangerous deals.
“China is aggressively trying to steal American technologies and put our national security at risk,” Brown said. “Why on earth would we make it harder for our watchdogs to stop them?”
Some GOP senators said they were voting “no” on Toomey’s amendment because a defense policy bill was not the right place to attempt such a change.
On the changes to expand the CFIUS jurisdiction, earlier proposals to do so had run into opposition from some high-tech firms arguing that government scrutiny of technology transfers would increase to an unwieldy degree, but the final language addressed those concerns and won support from senators along a wide ideological spectrum. Proponents said that China had begun structuring deals in such a way that they would not trigger a CFIUS review and that changes were necessary to address that problem.
Administration officials have testified in support of expanded authority for CFIUS, increasing the likelihood that the changes would make it into a final version of the defense bill.
Most Republican senators voted in favor of Toomey’s amendment, but 14 joined Democrats in voting “no”: Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton (Ark.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Deb Fischer (Neb.), Susan Collins (Maine), John Cornyn (Texas), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), James E. Risch (Idaho), Pat Roberts (Kansas), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Steve Daines (Mont.) and Richard C. Shelby (Ala.).