Senate’s bipartisan swing at China faces GOP curveballs

Senate’s bipartisan swing at China faces GOP curveballsApril 15, 2021

Chuck Schumer’s bid to put a bipartisan China bill on the Senate floor this month is in danger thanks to a behind-the-scenes GOP push to pump the brakes on an issue personally vital to the majority leader.

Senators from both parties have publicly projected confidence in recent days about the prospect of coming together on a historic effort to counter China’s global influence, a rare alignment in a bitterly partisan era on an issue that could prove politically valuable to everyone involved. But in reality, the state of the talks is growing more precarious.

“A lot of my colleagues are approaching me and indicating that we need to slow this thing down,” Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Schumer’s lead GOP partner on the China effort, told POLITICO on Wednesday. “They’re conscientious and want to grow comfortable with the text. We have to get this right. This is an incredibly consequential bill.”

Young’s assessment reflects the ripple effects of the Senate’s broader dynamics, with Republicans chafed as Democrats seek to push through President Joe Biden’s top agenda items without support from the GOP. The parties’ interests overlap considerably on China, as both sides acknowledge the need to out-compete Beijing on the technological front and curb its theft of U.S. intellectual property. But that accord could wither in the heat of a 50-50 Senate.

Another concern is the inevitable political battle over who gets credit for action on an issue that both parties would benefit from touting. The resulting legislative paralysis raises the question of whether the Senate can avoid a filibuster on any major bill these days — even something with such broad support and a strong chance of breezing through the House.

“There’s a lot of consensus on the China issue,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “If we can’t agree on a bill regarding China, we should probably close this place.”

Publicly, GOP senators have said they are satisfied with the level of cooperation with Democrats, noting that a bipartisan effort will send a stronger signal to Beijing as the U.S. seeks to blunt its global influence with legislation that allocates new funding for technology sectors. Privately, though, frustrations are brewing — and Republicans are already balking at Schumer’s plans.

A Republican aide working on the plan derided the “rushed process that will see good ideas left on the cutting-room floor, and which will undermine what could and should be broader bipartisan support.”

Democrats dismissed the GOP’s criticism as an attempt to wiggle out of the talks for political reasons, even as momentum builds toward a final product that can feasibly win 60 votes in the Senate. A Democratic aide noted that Schumer is steering the bill through regular order — deflating a common GOP complaint — including markups in multiple committees and the promise of a “robust” amendment process on the Senate floor.

Schumer has long fashioned himself as a China hawk, and he often found common ground with former President Donald Trump, whose populist mantra led him to impose several strict penalties on Beijing that the New York Democrat supported. Getting a bipartisan China measure to Biden’s desk would give Schumer a major victory, though also hand the GOP elements to promote in next year’s midterm campaign.

“I can’t think of anything that’s in the bill that would cause a partisan division. Obviously, there could always be efforts made to make it partisan,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

The China legislation has suffered a number of setbacks in the last 24 hours, even as Schumer and Young met in person to continue crafting their proposal, dubbed the Endless Frontier Act.

Idaho Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, invoked a procedural move to delay the panel’s scheduled consideration of a bipartisan bill — which Risch himself co-authored — that was designed as a key ingredient in the final product that Schumer puts on the Senate floor. The meeting was supposed to be held earlier Wednesday, but Risch’s move pushes it back by a week.

A spokesperson for Risch said the senator delayed the measure in order to give committee members more time to “read and understand the hundreds of pages of legislation, as well as draft amendments and incorporate additional ideas at the markup.”

In a brief interview, Risch suggested that whatever bill ultimately reaches the Senate floor could look more Democratic than its bipartisan billing suggests.

“When they meld it together with another half-dozen parts, I don’t know what happens there. I think that’s a wild card,” Risch said. “Our own piece, I think, if all else fails, we’ll probably be able to run our piece separately. But I don’t imagine they’d let us do that.”

But Democrats said Republicans are pre-judging the outcome and attempting to throw sand in the gears of a legislative locomotive that Schumer’s already promised to drive to passage by the end of the month.

“I think it could get 60 votes on the floor,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “It has different provisions that Republicans on the committee have been advocating for. So I would hope it can stand on its own two legs.”

Risch’s bill, which he introduced alongside Menendez, is largely non-controversial and includes several smaller pieces of China-focused legislation that both parties have been pushing for, including three of Rubio’s bills.

“This place is pretty partisan right now,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a vocal China hawk. “If people wanted to get something done, we could get something done overnight. I don’t think it’s that hard to figure this stuff out.”

Schumer tasked his committee chairs with crafting components of the China bill earlier this year, though their work has gone largely unnoticed as the Senate has focused much of its attention on Biden’s Covid relief plan and his infrastructure proposal. The Menendez-Risch plan will be just one part of the broader China effort.

“The true test will come when we do the markup and the floor action,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “But I’m satisfied that we’re engaged in a real bipartisan process.”

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