House poised to tee up Pelosi-pushed China bill as GOP howls

Many Democratic wish-list items expected to be nixed by conference committee

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., sent the House a China competition bill he helped negotiate. Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded by writing a much broader bill of her own. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., sent the House a China competition bill he helped negotiate. Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded by writing a much broader bill of her own. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 2, 2022 at 6:00am

The House appears headed to a mostly party-line vote this week on a sprawling Democratic-crafted bill aimed at boosting U.S. investment in a range of sectors to better compete against China’s aggressive efforts to dominate the technology realm. 

But Republicans are stiffly opposed to other provisions added by Democratic leaders — and miffed about how the bill was constructed, bringing some unexpected drama to a largely bipartisan issue.

The legislation is poised to attract little Republican support despite 13 bills embedded in the package that won bipartisan support last year. That opposition is mostly directed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leaders, who added a list of other provisions to the measure. Despite the GOP pushback, Pelosi has decided to push ahead with the bill relying only on Democratic support. 

“It would seem to me that, at this point, if the legislation as currently structured is going to make it through the House, it would probably have to be on a party line vote,” said Stephen Ezell, director of global innovation at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which is tracking the bill. 

The nearly 3,000-page bill would provide subsidies for domestic manufacturing of semiconductors and boost funding for the National Science Foundation. It would also create a new technology directorate, launch synthetic biology programs and expand science and technology education across the country. 

The bill also includes several provisions to address supply-chain bottlenecks, target China’s anti-competitive trade practices, alter international money flows and build new tools to assess climate change and tackle human rights violations. 

On Tuesday, the White House threw its support behind the House bill, saying in a statement that the legislation “is aligned with the president’s vision to enhance American economic and scientific competitiveness.” 

The White House said the bill would strengthen supply chains and boost domestic manufacturing — two aspects that President Joe Biden sees as critical to improving his own approval rating, as well as boosting the chances of the Democratic Party in the midterm elections. 

The legislative package includes several bipartisan bills championed by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and backed by Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the panel’s top Republican, and several other GOP members. 

In a statement last week, however, Lucas — echoed later by senior Republican staff from several committees — accused Pelosi of having, without consulting the GOP side despite the bipartisan work last year on tech-themed bills, “filled her package with poison pills with no bipartisan support — there was no need to make this partisan.” On a call late last week with reporters, one senior GOP aide said the Democrats’ bill was crafted “in the black box of the speaker’s office.”

‘Pretty firm no’

Even if House Republicans remain mostly united against it but Democrats provide enough votes for passage later this week, the Pelosi-pushed bill’s provisions would head to a conference committee with a different version that was supported by 18 Senate Republicans.

Dozens of Republican lawmakers have filed more than 250 amendments, some of which would strike down the entire legislation and replace it with proposals that would narrowly target China. Amendments would impose new sanctions against Chinese companies, launch probes of the origin of COVID-19 and prohibit awarding U.S. research grants to Chinese entities.

Other Republican proposals would eliminate or curtail provisions in the legislative package that address research on climate change at the Department of Energy and at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. 

The broad House package was “cobbled together in the speaker’s office” and was not vetted in committee hearings, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, said Tuesday as that panel considered the slew of proposed amendments. 

“Count me as a pretty firm no on the legislation,” Cole said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of Republican support for this because of the manner in which it was done.” 

The House legislation is similar in some respects to a Senate bill that passed that chamber last year. But not all. Democratic leaders also tacked on climate and low-carbon energy elements that are not in the Senate legislation.

Unlike the Senate version, the House bill would authorize $8 billion over two years for the Green Climate Fund, an international body that allocates money for climate mitigation and adaptation projects in low-income nations.

It would authorize $600 million every year from fiscal 2022 through fiscal 2026 for a new Energy Department program to pursue solar projects that make the U.S. “less reliant on solar components made in China.” The legislation also calls for a 10-year plan for mitigating climate change impacts and backs international programs to rein in super pollutants like black carbon, methane and hydrofluorocarbons. 

GOP members’ biggest concern is the labor law known as Davis-Bacon, not environmental issues. Republicans say any China competition measure should focus on the Asian power, not climate change.

“We’re happy with the Science Committee provisions in this bill, which were developed as a dozen bipartisan bills that went through the normal Committee process,” Heather Vaughan, a spokeswoman for the House Science Republicans, said in an email. “Our biggest concern with our section of the legislation is that the Speaker’s office added Davis-Bacon provisions without consulting us. That significantly reduces any chance for bipartisan support.”

In an emailed statement, Shana Mansbach, a Pelosi spokesperson, did not directly address the inclusion of Davis-Bacon language.

“The America COMPETES Act is a comprehensive package built on bipartisan bills, including many that have already passed the House, which will ensure that American manufacturing, American workers and the American economy can outcompete any country in the world," Mansbach said, using the acronym Democrats have given the package. "By voting against COMPETES, House Republicans would be voting against strong action to ensure that more critical goods vital to the supply chain are made here in America with American workers."

And there are many bipartisan sections.

Both bills would provide $52 billion in subsidies and grants to build domestic semiconductor manufacturing facilities. Both would authorize about $80 billion for the National Science Foundation over five years, though that money would have to be appropriated in subsequent legislation.

The speaker’s measure includes authorizations for several science and technology agencies, Johnson said at a Tuesday House Rules Committee hearing.

Those authorizations will “help jumpstart R&D in a number of critical areas,” ranging from quantum computing to next generation energy storage, Johnson said. 

It contains bipartisan legislation to reauthorize a law to protect coral reefs and authorize $58.5 million over five fiscal years for related programs. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is the lead sponsor on the Senate version, and Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., is behind the companion House bill, which the Natural Resources Committee approved by voice vote.

The House bill also includes bipartisan legislation to boost protections against slave labor in international fishing and a separate bipartisan bill to hire more staffers for a wildlife trafficking program. 

Conference conundrums

Still, the versions differ on key provisions relating to the Energy Department’s Office of Science and the National Science Foundation that would have to be reconciled by a conference panel.  

The Senate version would provide the new Directorate of Technology and Innovation at the NSF nearly twice the levels of funding as the House version. 

Any compromise version would have to focus more on the “competitiveness aspects, the technology transfer, and commercialization” that the Senate bill favors, Ezell said. 

“While we are world leaders in funding basic sciences, we haven’t always been as strong in turning that science into technologies, applications and jobs for Americans,” Ezell said. 

House Science majority aides have said the Democratic bill’s focus on funding basic sciences via NSF aligns with the agency’s mission, adding there will be no commercial applications without advancing basic science. 

If differences between the Senate and House bills are sorted out and a compromise version of the legislation is eventually signed into law by Biden, it would mark a start of Washington’s response to Beijing’s stated goal of becoming a technology superpower in the next decade.