(CNN)A bipartisan group of senators is pushing to pass legislation as soon as next month to try to rein in China’s economic influence on the United States, in an effort that represents President Joe Biden’s best chance at a major bipartisan package from Congress.
With the looming partisan brawl over a Biden’s next major agenda item, an infrastructure proposal that will carry a price tag between $3 trillion and $4 trillion, Democrats hope that a significant bipartisan agreement to confront China on multiple fronts could help the Biden administration restore fractured relationships with Republicans in Congress who felt slighted by the Democrats’ rapid pursuit of a Coronavirus relief in the first days of Biden’s presidency.
There are discussions underway between Republicans and the White House and across multiple Senate committees as the legislative package is being crafted, which could cover everything from boosting technology funding for semiconductors and bolstering the US supply chain to confronting China on intellectual property theft and the repression of Uyghur Muslims. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday he wants to have the bill on the Senate floor in April after the Senate returns from the Easter recess.
Republicans say they also see China legislation as ripe for a bipartisan agreement — and to restore some good will with the Biden White House. The Biden administration also earned some early confidence of congressional Republicans when Biden’s top national security officials stood up to Chinese aggressions during last week’s diplomatic clash with Chinese officials.
“It is hard to undo a $1.9 trillion package that involved zero consultation with Republicans, but I do think this could help right the course. It is going to take a pattern or nonpartisan on bipartisan behavior to reset things,” Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana.
The feeling is mutual inside the White House, according to administration officials. The active engagement on the legislation has been high-level, regular and with the goal of reaching a bipartisan deal with the very Republicans who attacked Biden for failing to follow through on his push for bipartisanship. While there’s an acknowledgement that a final deal isn’t a sure thing, “we see an outcome here and we want an outcome here,” a senior administration official told CNN.
For weeks, Young has been talking regularly with the White House’s legislative affairs team in an effort to settle on language that could win not just a handful of Republican votes but dozens, and GOP leaders have strategized with their chairmen about the best way to pursue the negotiations with Democrats on China.
There’s still a long way to go. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said China was ripe for a bipartisan agreement in a Senate floor speech, but he also warned Democrats the bill should not become a liberal wish list and argued that increased defense spending — not likely to be part of this package — was a “crucial first step” to confronting China.
“The Democratic majority must resist the temptation to pile a long list of unrelated policy wishes into a big package and try to label it ‘China policy,'” McConnell said. “It would be quite a remarkable coincidence if our Democratic colleagues’ vision for a so-called China bill ends up indistinguishable from a list of things that just happen to delight liberal interest groups.”
Realities of a polarized Washington
McConnell’s comments are reflection of the fact that the effort to China hits on a wide swath of US policy, from technology to national security to human rights, but also issues that remain contentious on Capitol Hill, like immigration, that could threaten to scuttle the bill.
The legislation could also attract opposition from China hawks in the Republican Party mulling potential 2024 presidential bids who are unlikely to want to give Biden a win on confronting China.
“We have Republicans already who are going to be running in terms of foreign policy on the China issue. They’ve had already a scorched-earth approach on this,” said Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You’ve seen them come out already going after Biden for appeasement and being soft on China. That to me is a harbinger of more politics as usual settling in here.”
White House officials say they are aware the early bipartisanship may eventually fall apart — the realities of a polarized Washington aren’t easily overcome. It’s led some in the administration to eye the infrastructure package as a possible landing place for the legislative push if it fails to move on a standalone basis, officials said.
Still, there’s optimism on both sides of the aisle that an agreement can be found on the fringes in areas that deal less directly with US foreign policy and more with a commitment to protecting economic development on US shores. Democrats and Republicans agree there’s a need for Congress to address China on multiple fronts, and they largely back the notion of addressing the issue with wide-ranging legislation.
“There’s a lot of good will, there’s a lot of common ground,” said Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat.
Asked if the China legislation was a chance for the Biden administration to notch a bipartisan win, Booker said, “I can’t speak to the strategy. I’m just trying to get things done.”
‘I feel good about the process’
The China effort underscores one of the most enduring challenges for the administration and for Democrats in the months ahead: deciding how to best utilize their Democratic majorities in the limited time they have. Liberals are pushing the Biden White House and the Senate to blow up the filibuster and address numerous issues, including immigration, voting rights, climate change and gun control.
With a $3 trillion infrastructure package on the table, Democrats have the tools to push another massive policy bill through with solely Democratic votes through reconciliation, the same tool used to pass the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package. But despite the urging of some progressives to plow ahead quickly and without Republican buy in, moderates have pushed back and demanded more time and consideration to try and find a way ahead with Republicans on infrastructure and to some extent immigration.
Democratic members say the Biden administration is practicing patience and restraint in the wake of the Covid relief bill, an effort to let Democratic differences play out and give lawmakers on Capitol Hill more time to settle on a cohesive strategy. In the interim, it’s given the Biden administration a chance to pursue bipartisanship on China.
“They have a lot of different things going on,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia said of Biden’s agenda. “I do think a right strategy with respect to China and infrastructure are the two big priorities now as well as implementing what we just did.”
The base of the Senate’s China bill comes from legislation Schumer and Young introduced together last year. Young told CNN that he has been happy with the White House’s efforts so far on the broader China package, though he added he isn’t afraid to walk away from the negotiations if he begins to feel like he and his GOP colleagues can’t back the final bill.
“I feel good about the process because we are going to go through regular order, introduce the bill in the Senate, refer it to committees and then in a bipartisan fashion, the process will work its way out,” Young said. “I want (the administration) to be invested in earning 70, 80, 90 votes in the US Senate. If they are merely invested in the 60-vote work product that will be disappointing to me. … The goal should be to find something that is broadly appealing.”
‘The devil is in the details’
The package under consideration could include a number of elements from Democratic and Republican bills that deal with everything from pushing alternatives to China’s Huawei 5G technology and protecting US intellectual property to potentially dealing with some of the human rights violations in China. But the foundation of the package is the legislation introduced last year by Schumer and Young that would make investments in broadening the mission of the National Science Foundation to keep the US competitive in the technological and science fields.
The bill would give a more than $100 billion science and technology investments to help the US stay competitive and would designate 10 regional hubs that would be selected to help lead research.
Schumer directed the committees last month to begin preparing for the legislation. The goal is to finish language for the initial package in the days and weeks ahead so that committees can return from the Easter recess ready to mark up the bill and get it to the floor by the end of April.
There are already some bipartisan efforts that can be added, like a bill to bring back semiconductor production to the US. In some cases, like the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there were China bills introduced last year by both the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and top Republican, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho. Risch reintroduced his bill this session.
Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, told CNN it’s been a “very consultative and positive process” as the Foreign Relations panel and multiple additional committees have been piecing together proposals to be debated in committee and added to the bill that goes to the Senate floor.
Coons said the task for Senate leaders will be deciding how robust the package can be while maintaining wide support in the Senate.
“It’s also reasonable to ask how broad is the scope?” Coons said. “Are we really talking about things that are specific to American renewal, reinvesting in our country, innovation, manufacturing, things that make us more competitive? Are we looking at things that are very specifically in response to China?”
Blanchette said that the bipartisan desire to confront China doesn’t always mean there’s a bipartisan solution. On immigration. for instance, Democrats favor expanding high-skilled work visas to attract foreign talent to compete with China, while GOP China hawks have looked to limit students from China at US universities, arguing there are national security concerns.
“There’s a lot of bipartisan agreement on exactly what the China challenge is, the fronts on which there are risks that need to be tackled,” said Anna Ashton, the vice president of government affairs at the US-China Business Council, a trade group that represents US business interests in China.
“A lot of this stuff the devil is in the details,” Ashton added. “I think it actually is going to be quite complicated to figure out how to roll out policy solutions that actually protect what they want to protect, bolster what they want to bolster, and do more good than harm.”