House overcomes Republican opposition to pass competition bill

Minority Leader McCarthy derides legislation as ‘coral reef bill’

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed a China competition bill through her chamber, but a conference panel will likely strip it down to align with a more narrow one championed by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed a China competition bill through her chamber, but a conference panel will likely strip it down to align with a more narrow one championed by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 4, 2022 at 11:20am

House Democrats used a mostly party-line vote Friday to pass broad legislation aimed at boosting science and technology investments for several federal agencies, in an attempt to position the country to better compete with China.

Loaded with provisions on climate and environmental matters, the bill likely will be pared back during a conference with the Senate after that chamber passed a much narrower bill on competition with tech-giant China. The 222-210 vote on the bill, championed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., came after three days of debate during which several Republicans denounced the package as too broad and argued that some of the included bills had not been subject to committee hearings.  

A slew of amendments were added to the final legislative package over three days of floor debate and votes, addressing a wide variety of issues such as looking into forced labor camps in China, examining the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions, adding "alternative proteins" to the federal research and development list, altering a federal program in an attempt to help companies capable of manufacturing solar panels, creating new offices within a list of federal agencies and ordering up studies on various issues.  

The House bill is similar in some ways to a Senate bill that passed last year with bipartisan support. Still, a House-Senate conference committee will likely have to be convened to resolve some key differences before the legislation can be signed into law by President Joe Biden, who supported both versions.  

The House legislation included 17 different bipartisan bills from the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, including some that had been developed in pieces over nearly a decade.  

The nearly 3,000-page bill would provide subsidies for domestic manufacturing of semiconductors, boost funding for the National Science Foundation as well as create a new technology directorate, launch synthetic biology programs, direct the Energy Department’s Office of Science, and expand science and technology education across the country.  

The bill also includes several provisions backed by a dozen other House committees intended to address supply-chain bottlenecks, counter China’s anticompetitive trade practices, disrupt illegal international money flows, create tools to assess climate change, make changes to immigration policy to attract top talent and tackle human rights violations.  

Other provisions in the House Democrats’ legislative package address climate change and low-carbon energy programs. Republicans objected to those and other provisions, saying Pelosi should have kept her version as narrowly focused on China as did the Senate.

“The United States has long been a beacon of excellence in science and innovation,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the House Science committee, said in a floor speech on Wednesday. “However, we cannot rest on our laurels. It is time for us to revitalize federal support for the kinds of research and development initiatives that enabled us to achieve that excellence in the first place.” 

Republican objections

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois was the lone Republican to vote in favor of the legislation, with Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida casting the lone Democratic vote against.

Several Republicans denounced the legislation and the process used to move the bill across the finish line.  

Hundreds of amendments filed by Republicans, including some provisions that would have struck down the entire bill, were ruled out of order by the Rules Committee before the House began debate on final passage.  

In several floor speeches, Republicans voiced opposition, although several bills tucked into the package had received wide bipartisan support last year.  

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the bill concedes too much to China.  

During a lengthy floor speech Wednesday, McCarthy criticized parts of the legislation that aim to expand visa access to top scientists seeking to remain in the United States after completing advanced programs in American universities.  

McCarthy also denounced provisions that would authorize payments to the United Nations Green Climate Fund and fund programs to combat climate change. At one point, he referred to Pelosi’s measure as “the coral reef bill” because it would support programs to keep them alive.

“All of these far-left policies would make America more vulnerable against China,” McCarthy said. “And Democrats have spent this debate defending none of them." He also noted that a White House statement of administration policy document expressing support for the House bill did not mention China once.

Republicans also objected to provisions that would require employers who receive funds authorized by the legislation to abide by prevailing wage laws, and would prohibit funding recipients from opposing unionization efforts. The labor provisions fall under the so-called Davis-Bacon law.

The House and Senate bills would both 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. 

But the two 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.

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

The coming conference panel will face several challenges, including the Republican side still feeling burned by Pelosi.