Senate passes long-delayed China bill

The Senate passed sweeping legislation aimed at combating China’s competitiveness on Tuesday, after Democrats agreed to punt the bill into June in the face of GOP slow-walking. 

The 68-32 vote hands a victory to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who made the bill a top priority and was able to get it past several last-minute snags in a weeks-long debate that appeared ready to derail it multiple times. 

The measure now goes to the House, where it faces uncertain prospects, as lawmakers there have offered their own measure. There’s talk of trying to drop part of it into an eventual infrastructure package.

But the measure marks a bipartisan win for the Senate ahead of what’s shaping up to be a summer of deeply partisan fights that will underscore the limits of what can get 60 votes, the level of support needed for most legislation to pass the 50-50 upper chamber.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pointed to it as an example of how the upper chamber can work, though Democrats bristled after a handful of GOP senators were able to delay a vote before the Memorial Day break. 

“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,” said McConnell, who supported the legislation. Other members of GOP leadership, including Sens. John Thune (S.D.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.), rejected it.

The Senate first voted to advance the bill over an initial procedural hurdle on May 17, meaning its consideration dragged on for roughly three weeks even though it eventually passed with strong bipartisan support.

Schumer described the vote as a necessary step to keep America in the game against countries such as China and a significant legislative accomplishment after months of behind-the-scenes talks. 

“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. … We can concede the mantle of global leadership to our adversaries, or we can pave the way for another generation of American leadership. That is what this bill is about,” he said. 

The legislation faced a roller-coaster ride to the finish line as Republicans significantly delayed its passage amid frustration over getting additional amendment votes. 

“Sen. Schumer has tried to shoehorn this in. … You can only push senators so far, and then they’ll push back,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters late last month in the middle of the drama. “He’s threatened to keep us here this weekend.” 

Protests from a group of Republicans led by Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.), who argued that the chamber was moving too quickly, drove the Senate into a rare Friday session on the brink of a holiday weekend, sparking frustration on both sides. 

“For the first time I’ve seen what the amendments are in the managers’ package. I’m sorry. I don’t know what these amendments are. … So you can claim this is regular order. You can claim this is deliberative process, but it’s far from it,” Johnson said. 

In the end, leadership and the conservative group agreed to a deal allowing the Senate to vote in daylight hours on a bill to create a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot — which failed to meet the 60-vote threshold — while locking in a path to pass the China legislation. 

It was a final averted setback after the bill had also appeared on life support until Schumer was able to salvage it by cutting a deal with Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) to allow for a vote on his amendment related to trade and tariffs. The amendment, crafted with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), was added into the bill in a 91-4 vote.

The measure builds off a Schumer proposal with Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) to provide $120 billion for activities at the National Science Foundation, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It would also create a new directorate of technology and innovation at the National Science Foundation. 

In addition to the Young-Schumer bill at its core, the legislation provides $52 billion for semiconductor provisions, folds in a separate China-specific bill that passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a 21-1 vote, and includes provisions cracking down on the reliance of Chinese companies and technology. 

Not everyone was satisfied with the outcome. 

Schumer faced pressure from his left flank, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) railing against semiconductor funding and money that would go toward a company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. 

“I am sympathetic to the goal of this bill, but I am not sympathetic with the idea of simply laying out $52 billion of taxpayers’ money with no strings attached,” said Sanders, who was the only member of the Democratic caucus to vote no.

And some Republicans still railed against the process, arguing it was badly negotiated on their side. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that he would support a “real China bill,” while Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) added that Republicans “have given away all our leverage” to Schumer. 

“Whoever was negotiating for us, I wouldn’t take them to buy a car with me,” he said. “They would offer the car salesman a bonus.” 

Even after the weeks of wrangling in the Senate, the bill doesn’t face a glide path to passing unchanged in the Democratic-controlled House. 

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the sponsor of the House version of the Endless Frontier Act, predicted that the bill would be incorporated with separate legislation from House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) to increase funding for the National Science Foundation and later reconciled in conference with the Senate.

“I expect that will take a bit, and then that’ll pass, and once that passes, then I think we’ll have a conference. And I’m hopeful in the next few months we get the bill to the president’s desk,” Khanna said.

“Look, this is a transformative bill,” he added. “So I just think that it’s normal that this would take a while.”

Cristina Marcos contributed to this article, which was updated at 7:44 p.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders Chuck Schumer Eddie Bernice Johnson Jeff Bezos John Barrasso John Cornyn John Kennedy John Thune Marco Rubio Mike Crapo Mitch McConnell Ro Khanna Ron Johnson Ron Wyden Todd Young

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