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House Democrats take different approach to economic, national security threats posed by China

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is a major proponent of a House innovation bill that would focus on increased funding for research and development. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In a fractious Washington, any deal that would inject billions in new federal spending into the economy and receives overwhelming support from a bitterly divided Senate would seem a good candidate to move swiftly through the House and onto President Biden’s desk.

But a sprawling bipartisan Senate proposal that passed on a vote of 68 to 32 last month and would spread $250 billion across several key industries to counter China’s growing technological and economical prowess is being viewed warily in the House.

The skeptical response by Democrats is motivated by policy concerns and a feeling among members of the House that they aren’t going to rubber stamp a bipartisan Senate bill simply because it is so rare that one emerges.

Among House lawmakers’ concerns is that the Senate bill became a magnet for unrelated policies, that it would not direct enough funding to scientific research and that it would limit international cooperation regarding scientific endeavors. Some liberal members have warned that the bill needs to be framed as specifically taking on the government of China and not the Chinese people at a time when violence against Asian Americans has increased.

Senate approves sprawling $250 billion bill to curtail China’s economic and military ambitions

At stake is one of the most ambitious policy initiatives to confront the increasing economic and national security threats posed by China — an issue that both parties highlight as paramount to the United States’ future.

House and Senate Democrats have expressed optimism that a final agreement will be struck, but how long that will take and what that package will look like will be the subject of intense negotiations in the coming months.

“It will be huge in a bipartisan way, and it shows that our country is capable of doing big things,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who introduced legislation in the House that was similar to the Senate bill before it was amended on the floor. “It’s understandable that it’s going to take time, we’re transforming the science and research infrastructure of this country in this bill. I mean, we’re transforming something that hasn’t been transformed probably since World War II.”

With a tight legislative calendar that contains the goal of passing legislation funding infrastructure projects nationwide and expanding social safety net programs, the House is expected to pass smaller bills approved by the Science and Technology, Energy and Commerce, Foreign Affairs and Ways and Means committees before combining them later this year into one innovation package aimed at competing with China.

Two Science Committee bills expanding research at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Energy Department’s Office of Science passed the House last week with bipartisan support.

The NSF bill would increase funding to the science agency by doubling its current budget from $8.5 billion to $17.9 billion by 2026. It also would establish a new directorate to accelerate work on emerging technologies and advance research in areas such as climate change. The DOE bill would provide the department’s science office with nearly $50 billion for five years.

Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) said the two measures have been in the works for years and were not passed in reaction to the Senate bill.

“I believe our approach is the best way forward for the American people. To boost our competitiveness and develop evidence-based solutions to our many pressing challenges, we need to be doubling down on the proven innovation engines we have at NSF and DOE,” she said.

The House bills do not contain provisions added to the Senate in the name of research security that some experts think could limit international collaboration. They also do not address the Senate’s call for $52 billion in emergency funding for semiconductor manufacturers in an effort to deal with a shortage of computer chips needed for everything from advanced technology to kitchen appliances.

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And although the Senate bill was championed as one that would help outcompete China, critics of the legislation said that will be impossible to do without a stronger focus on expanding research and development in the United States.

“I just see the attitude with the committee members that science is not partisan, it’s strictly dependent on the quality of the work we put into it,” Johnson said about the bipartisan ease with which both bills moved through her committee and the House.

Committee and leadership aides said they think a final House package eventually will pass with bipartisan support, but some of these critical pieces of legislation are already facing resistance from Republicans on issues including climate change and the overall cost of the legislation.

These tensions were on display last week when the House Foreign Affairs Committee considered the Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement (EAGLE) Act, sponsored by Chairman Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.). The measure seeks to address challenges posed by China by boosting State Department resources and personnel in the Indo-Pacific region and imposing costs on China for its use of Uyghur forced labor, as well as for its greenhouse gas emissions. Republicans on the committee oppose several of the bill’s climate provisions, arguing that the measure prioritizes working with the Chinese Communist Party to meet emissions goals rather than denounce its ideology.

“Democrats passed up the opportunity to work on a meaningful, bipartisan legislation to counter the threats of the Chinese Communist Party and instead made it another green energy bill,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the committee’s ranking Republican. “The EAGLE Act is a climate bill masquerading as a foreign policy bill and doesn’t take the generational threat posed by the CCP seriously.”

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Instead, the committee’s Republicans argued, the House should focus on the provisions outlined in the Senate measure.

The Senate bill seeks to limit China’s political influence in a number of ways, including by opening the door for new human rights sanctions, commissioning a new study about the origin of the coronavirus and calling for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee have viewed the Senate bill skeptically from the start and even more so after it was amended to reduce the amount it would provide the National Science Foundation from $100 billion to $81 billion over five years — a feeling shared by the research community, including universities, which is hoping for a significant boost in funding.

“What started as sort of a small but ambitious bill focused just on the NSF and some economic developments became a 2,300-page bill that is focused on strengthening U.S. competition with China but lots of extraneous things as well,” said Deborah Altenburg, the associate vice president of research, policy and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “Everyone has been joking about how, during the Commerce Committee markup, there was a half-an-hour discussion about shark finning, which really has nothing to do with this.”

Several liberal Democrats have raised concerns that debate around the bill has strayed into jingoism and could help fuel the increase in attacks and bigotry toward Asian Americans that was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and charged rhetoric about the virus’s origins in China.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus warned that the bill should be messaged responsibly, making it explicitly clear that it would combat the Chinese Communist Party, not Chinese people.

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Republicans have brushed aside these concerns, arguing that the bill is not forceful enough in its efforts to combat the growing economic and national security influence of China’s communist government.

“This piece of legislation we are marking up here today does not push any consequences onto the CCP but rather gives more money to them,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said during last week’s Foreign Affairs meeting. “If we don’t take necessary action, China will continue to use our research, our money and our technology to dominate us entirely.”

Another concern among House Democrats is to what degree moving too quickly on a innovation bill with investments in manufacturing could interfere with the negotiations over a massive infrastructure package that is the top priority for President Biden and congressional Democratic leaders. And some House Democrats have been annoyed that the Senate added a package of tax proposals to its bill on the floor even though such policies are supposed to originate in the House under the Constitution.

Still, lawmakers in both chambers said they remain optimistic that Congress will be able to produce ambitious legislation this session that would boost funding for research and manufacturing and serve as a major step toward competing with China and combating its growing influence in the world — even if it takes time.

“The great news is, in a bipartisan way, both the House and the Senate are looking at how we can move forward in our competitiveness,” said Rep. Deborah K. Ross (D-N.C.), a member of the science panel. “I really want to keep saying our leadership, when it comes to China, in the House and the Senate are in accord on most of the issues about funding on science and technology and making sure we’re well positioned, but in the legislative process, how many times have you seen one body pass something and the other side says, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great, we’ll just do that’?”

Tony Romm contributed to this report.