Divided government threatens to clip wings of Congress’ China hawks
“The worst mistake we could make is for our China positioning to be dictated by the House of Representatives. There aren’t a lot of thoughtful policy makers over there. We should make our own policy,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden administration officials are set to give a broad China briefing to senators Wednesday afternoon, after holding two straight classified briefings on the Chinese spy balloon and three unrelated aerial craft shot down by the military. Those meetings have shined a bright light on bipartisan concern over China’s surveillance capabilities, putting Beijing front and center as the 118th Congress gets off to a slow start.
Yet there are already signs that translating bipartisan worry into legislation would be a struggle. Even senators who are cheerleading further action to hold Beijing accountable — such as re-upping provisions to boost competition with China that Democratic leaders scrapped from last year’s semiconductor bill — talk about their priorities with at least some doubt.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a brief interview Tuesday that “there’s desire to do some of it, if we could,” but observed: “we’ll see where the House is.” A Schumer spokesperson later added that last year’s legislation “was a major step forward to improving American competitiveness, but we need to do more.”
Lawmakers originally had high hopes for that legislation, known as the CHIPS Act, as a way to stand up to China. But the final version did little more than subsidize microchips, with leadership taking out more China-specific provisions in order to ease passage through both chambers after more than a year of bicameral debate.
Now, senators are eager to take up those scrapped measures, despite the added problem of partisan gridlock. Senators say even provisions that won bipartisan support last year, such as a trade compromise meant to cut costs for American manufacturers, are unlikely to go anywhere this term.
“The very strong vote we saw on the [trade provisions] is hard to remove from support that was behind” the broader bill, said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.). “That was offered as an amendment, and as a standalone, it would be difficult this Congress to get that through, but I think we should try.”
And the prognosis isn’t looking better elsewhere. The Foreign Relations Committee’s top two senators are planning to introduce an updated version of a bill that would challenge China’s economy by strengthening U.S. competitiveness. But senators were clear there’s still a lot of details they’re ironing out.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the foreign relations panel, said that Democratic and Republican panel staff are meeting to draft the legislation. He added that he plans to meet with House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) “on a broad range of issues.”
“I would like to think from my conversations that there is bipartisan, bicameral interest” in addressing China, he said.
Suzanne Wrasse, a spokesperson for Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the panel, called bipartisan efforts to boost competition with China a “work in progress” but said the “hope is that this Congress we can avoid another badly broken legislative process on the Senate floor.”
On the other side of the Capitol, a spokesperson for McCaul said he is part of the discussion on the potential legislation but had no further details to share about the negotiations. A spokesperson for the Ways and Means Committee, the counterpart to the Senate Finance Committee that worked out the trade compromise last year, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Meanwhile, the House is on recess until the end of the month, and the Senate is set to be out next week.
Not everyone is so pessimistic about the chances of moving legislation. Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and ranking member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) both said on Tuesday they’re hopeful at least some of the provisions — like removing tariffs on imports from developing nations and goods used by American manufacturers — could be revived this year.
And Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, was optimistic that a substantial bipartisan committee vote on China competition legislation could lead to movement on the Senate floor.
As for the prospects of passage in the House, Kaine said “this may be one of the bills where it actually helps for the Senate to go first.”
On the national security side, Democrats and Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill have sought to nudge the Pentagon to better posture U.S. forces in the Pacific in order to deter Beijing. Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services panels have sounded the alarm over China’s military modernization and nuclear expansion, and they’ve made the country a priority as they craft annual defense legislation.
Emerging from a classified briefing on Tuesday, some senators also argued Congress should fund improvements in “domain awareness” so the military can better track slow-moving or low-flying objects.
“I think all of this is gonna provide a wake-up call and hopefully motivation to authorize and appropriate money to get on it,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who had an unidentified object shot down off the coast of his state last week.
“I think it’s a revealing moment for the American people who haven’t been tracking this that this country, their leadership, has no problem looking at the whole world, including the American people, and lying their ass off,” Sullivan added of the spy balloon. “And that’s dangerous.”
There’s also been bipartisan consensus on arming Taiwan as concerns grow that China could be rapidly building its military capability to invade the self-governing island in the coming years.
Defense policy legislation enacted in December incorporated a swath of provisions proposed by Menendez and Risch aimed at beefing up Taiwan’s defense. Lawmakers notably voted to step up arms sales to Taiwan, greenlighting $10 billion in security assistance over the next five years.
“If there’s one thing that seems to unify Republicans and Democrats today it’s addressing the China threat, and the spy balloon probably got everybody’s attention like nothing else,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Yet he underscored the huge scope of “the challenges we face” on the issue beyond the balloon episode: “an aggressive China, not only economically, but also building a huge military and nuclear arms threat to not only Taiwan … but also to the region and the rest of the world.”