Lawmakers returned to Washington this week eager to tackle outstanding questions about a Chinese spy balloon’s journey across the U.S. and what it means for the broader relationship between the U.S. and China.
Republicans, who have made competition with China a cornerstone of their agenda in the 118th Congress, say the balloon’s incursion illustrates the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party and the need for congressional action.
“It has a way of hammering home the threat, reminding people that this isn’t an over-there threat. It’s a right-here-at-home threat,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the newly created select committee on China. “We had a massive spy balloon transiting lazily over the United States.”
Republicans are currently weighing whether to put forward a resolution condemning Chinese spying or, potentially, the Biden administration’s response to the situation. Although those details remain fluid, the appetite for some sort of legislative response is high.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., told reporters Tuesday that Republicans were “working on legislation right now” regarding the spy balloon, with four committees involved. But he also suggested details would need to wait until lawmakers had received classified briefings on the situation.
“We’re still gathering more facts; working through that process,” he said. “So we may have a piece of legislation but it’s not finalized.”
Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Monday evening that he was working to secure a classified briefing on the balloon for all members of the House. He also hinted support for a bipartisan resolution condemning China’s tactics that could earn Democratic votes.
“I think our greatest strength is when we speak with one voice to China,” he said. “I think what they did was an atrocity.”
However, GOP lawmakers have already vowed to probe the Biden administration’s decision-making as the situation unfolded. An F-22 Raptor based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia shot down the balloon Saturday after it had traversed the U.S., but Republicans have questioned why it was not destroyed sooner.
Defense Department officials maintained they avoided shooting the balloon down over land to protect people and property on the ground while also taking steps to prevent it from gathering any valuable intelligence.
“We absolutely need to do something,” said Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich., a member of the Armed Services Committee. “I mean, it was over the continental United States for, what, eight days?”
“We have a lot of questions, a lot of concerns. Why did it take so long to take action?” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. “I think Republicans are not happy with Joe Biden because it seems to be another display of weakness.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have largely praised the Biden administration’s handling of the balloon, pointing out that previous surveillance balloons crossed into American airspace under the Trump administration, albeit for shorter periods of time, with no action taken. (Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told reporters Tuesday the Trump administration was not aware of the incursions as they happened, but intelligence analysts were able to identify them after the fact.)
While Democrats agree with Republicans that combating threats from China is necessary — one of the most bipartisan issues in Congress — some Democratic lawmakers urged caution about moving too quickly.
“Honestly, no rush right now. We are trying to understand the full extent of what happened and then we’ll make a considered decision,” said Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., ranking member of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee. “This is not something you want to shoot from the hip about.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the balloon’s highly visible journey across the country clarifies Chinese security threats in a new way. The House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday held its first hearing of the year, focusing on threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party’s to U.S. national defense.
“Once you see a big white object in the sky on CNN, and suddenly it’s a topic of conversation everywhere — and I think when it makes Saturday Night Live, you know — you’ve got an issue that has a real resonance in the American people,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Tuesday.
The issue is likely to remain in the spotlight for some time, especially as lawmakers examine the Biden administration’s budget proposal for fiscal 2024 and compile the national defense authorization bill for next year.
“I think it was quite a bold and an aggressive move,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, who has argued that the balloon’s incursion could be a “Sputnik moment” that awakens Americans’ understanding of Chinese threats. “We are under a tidal wave of Chinese espionage across our society.”
Mark Satter, Briana Reilly and Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.