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Research and development ambitions will test bipartisanship

Interior and Commerce departments would be the big winners under Biden's proposed R&D increases

Vice President Kamala Harris tours a clean energy lab at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on May 4.
Vice President Kamala Harris tours a clean energy lab at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on May 4. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Corrected | As partisan disagreements over infrastructure and a national commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol dominated headlines last week, Congress and President Joe Biden inched closer to a historic boost in U.S. research and development eyed by Republicans and Democrats as a needed counter to China’s quest for technological dominance.

And while the progress wasn’t without its own share of political hiccups — an eleventh-hour border wall amendment here, a declaration of Biden’s budget as “dead on arrival” there — there was still evidence that Washington is heading in the direction of major spending boosts to gain a cutting edge in fields like artificial intelligence, quantum computing and advanced energy.

On Friday, Biden proposed a total of $171.26 billion across the federal government for research and development in fiscal 2022, an increase of 9 percent over the enacted level. The National Science Foundation, the fulcrum for spearheading U.S. research in several key areas, would see a 20 percent increase for a total of $10.2 billion.

The biggest beneficiaries of research spending in Biden’s 2022 request would be the departments of Interior and Commerce.

The Interior Department is home to the U.S. Geological Survey, which studies the mineral and water resources of the United States. At Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researches climate, marine and oceanic conditions.

All but one of the 14 federal departments and agencies that research science and technology would see a boost in funding; the Defense Department would lose 1 percent of its funding.

“Investments in research and development are necessary to help spur innovation across the economy and renew America’s global leadership,” the White House said in one of its budget documents. “R&D is also critical to tackling the climate crisis and driving the emerging technologies that will power future industries and create good-paying jobs across the nation.”

Meanwhile, the Senate moved closer to passing sprawling science and technology legislation that would not only authorize spending on research and development to the tune of $100 billion over the next five years, but also protect U.S. intellectual property from Chinese spies and hackers and invest in STEM education and workforce development at home.

The bill’s key provisions include an increase in authorized funding for the National Science Foundation and the establishment of a new NSF directorate to focus on fields key to global competition, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. It would also establish regional technology hubs throughout the country to coordinate research.

It would also authorize an increase in R&D funding for the Energy Department and $17.5 billion over five fiscal years for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, to research fields of science specified in the bill.

The massive package, backed by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and GOP Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, cleared a key legislative hurdle last week by a 68-30 vote, with 19 Republicans voting in favor of a Schumer substitute amendment that substantially expanded the bill to include contributions from the Foreign Relations and Banking committees.

Republicans praised the bipartisan process.

“We did this through regular order,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “It may not be pretty, it may not be the most efficient process ever devised by the minds of man.”

Still, the bill wasn’t across the finish line yet, and whether it passes will be a greater test of bipartisanship than last week’s vote.

After saying the bill would pass before senators left for the Memorial Day recess, Schumer struck a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Friday to punt consideration of the bill until after the recess in exchange for a vote related to creating a Jan. 6 commission.

The deal came after the prospects of the bill passing quickly dimmed late Thursday into Friday morning, when GOP senators led by Ron Johnson of Wisconsin began objecting with a litany of concerns about the bill’s content and the manner in which the Senate had amended it.

McConnell, R-Ky., had warned during the two weeks that the bill was on the floor that it could spell trouble if Schumer did not allow votes on a sufficient number of Republican amendments. Numerous votes were held and several GOP measures were added to the bill. But the more the bill grew, the antsier some Republicans grew.

The last straw for Johnson was when Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the chair of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, asked unanimous consent to attach 36 amendments to the bill as the clock struck midnight Thursday. Behind closed doors, reports said, the Wisconsin Republican was pushing a controversial amendment related to the border wall.

Before the Senate adjourned, Schumer said the bill would pass without incident when lawmakers return to Washington next week. Continued bipartisan support could push it across the finish line, unless the GOP holdouts are able to persuade more of their colleagues to defect.

The same test awaits the research and development proposals in Biden’s budget request, and there will certainly be disagreements. For instance, Republicans are unlikely to support cutting research funding for the Pentagon.

They may also oppose any research and development spending that Biden seeks to include in his infrastructure and jobs plans, which Democrats could pass without Republican support later this year. Biden’s plan calls for another $50 billion for the NSF, $30 billion for workforce development and $40 billion to upgrade research infrastructure.

But many areas, especially those concerned with beating China, are ripe for bipartisanship. As long as the glue holds, of course.

Sen. Roger Wicker‘s committee title is corrected in this report.

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