Congress is headed for a probable showdown over President Trump’s recent deal to lift certain penalties against Chinese telecom giant ZTE after the Senate overwhelming passed its version of an annual defense authorization bill that would reimpose those punitive measures.
The Senate voted 85 to 10 to approve the $716 billion piece of legislation with little fanfare — a sign of how much common ground there is between the House and Senate versions of the bill, which must still be woven into a single piece of legislation. It also serves as a reminder that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee has steered the bill through many a floor fight in recent years, continues to battle a rare and serious form of brain cancer. The measure is named after him.
The bill envisions several policy changes to better equip the Pentagon to combat threats from aggressor nations, such as Russia and China, in an arms race, cyberspace and other areas. But whereas most of those measures are expected to easily earn the support of the whole Congress, the ZTE provision has already sparked direct clashes with the Trump administration, setting up a likely fight between the GOP’s national security hawks and Trump’s closest supporters as administration officials attempt to persuade lawmakers to strip the Senate’s policy change from the final bill.
Both the House and Senate versions of the defense policy bill restrict government agencies from purchasing ZTE products. But the Senate bill goes one step further, ordering the reimposition of punitive measures that Trump sought to roll back in a deal they Chinese say is necessary to keep the company from dissolving. ZTE was effectively banned from the U.S. market because the company broke U.S. restrictions to sell products in North Korea and Iran.
Several lawmakers — including some of the president’s close allies — remain concerned that ZTE’s products pose a significant national security concern and could be used by the Chinese government to spy on the United States.
Senate leaders decided last week to include language written by two Republicans, Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), who along with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) offered the measure to reimpose punitive actions against ZTE in an updated version of the defense bill.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has made multiple trips to the Capitol in the time since to plead the administration’s case with House and Senate Republicans in the hopes of getting lawmakers to drop the provision during the upcoming conference process, in which House and Senate negotiators will try to hammer out a compromise defense bill that can pass both chambers.
ZTE is not the only area of the defense bill in which Congress seemed set Monday to clash with the administration. Just hours before the Senate voted, Trump announced that he had ordered the Pentagon to develop a “Space Force” as a sixth branch of the armed forces. Lawmakers, who have been debating issues surrounding the potential creation of a space force via the annual defense authorization bill in recent years, leaped on the president’s announcement, rebuking him and reminding him that his order “requires congressional action,” as Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) said.
The Senate bill also denies the Trump administration the wiggle room it was seeking on scaling back certain mandatory Russia restrictions, leeway Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had asked for to increase defense cooperation with countries where systems have historically been aligned with Russia, such as Ukraine. The Senate’s bill also extends lethal assistance to Ukraine and aims to increase the U.S. efforts to counter Russia’s influence.
National security concerns also appear to be behind the Senate defense bill’s demands for reports on the expansion of Chinese military activities in the South China Sea, as well as prohibition on China participating in Pacific Rim naval exercises. Concerns that China has been trying to skirt regulations to exert more influence in U.S. markets are also behind changes to expand the review authority of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
Some of those provisions are reflected in similar portions of the House defense bill. Like the House bill, the Senate defense bill also would increase military pay by 2.6 percent and envisions an expansion of the armed forces — but by fewer than the additional 16,000 positions created under the House’s legislation.