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Republicans leery of Democrats’ China competition plan

Some GOP senators fear Democrats will load up the package with new spending

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, says a China competition package Democrats want to assemble can be bipartisan if they keep it targeted and avoid letting it become "some sort of omnibus Christmas bill."
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, says a China competition package Democrats want to assemble can be bipartisan if they keep it targeted and avoid letting it become "some sort of omnibus Christmas bill." (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans are open to working with Democrats on another China competition package, but some worry the majority will try to load it up with new spending and lose bipartisan appeal.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday announced their committees in the coming months would assemble a massive legislative package to combat the Chinese government’s economic and military expansion plans. This effort is intended to follow up on the bipartisan chips and science law enacted last year. 

The general goal of helping the U.S. better compete with the Chinese government on the world stage is one Republicans share. But with Democrats talking a lot already about “investments,” Republicans fear that means new spending that will make the package unpalatable to their conference. 

Senate Republican Whip John Thune said there is “perhaps” another opportunity for a bipartisan China competition package.

“If it’s a big spending bill, probably not,” the South Dakota Republican said. “Our members now are really not shy about [opposing] spending money and adding it to the debt. We’re seeing a lot of the consequences of that already.” If there are nonspending proposals to “sort of up the stakes in terms of that relationship with China, which has become very adversarial on many levels, I’m sure there’s bipartisan interest in that,” Thune added. 

A majority of Senate Republicans, including Thune, voted against the chips and science law, in part because it spent $78 billion on grants and tax subsidies for semiconductor manufacturing. Of the 17 Republicans that voted for it, four are now retired and the senators that replaced them are more conservative. 

Although potential support for a follow-up package wouldn’t necessarily be limited to the remaining 13 Republicans, some opponents of the previous effort aren’t optimistic Democrats will take a different approach on this one.

“I thought the other one was wrong, and there was a sell out to China,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said. “It’s not what I want to see in terms of real competition against China.”

Barrasso declined to speculate about what it would take to make the next package bipartisan. 

Although some Democratic committee chairs have begun conversations with their ranking members about legislation they could mark up, Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he’s not heard from Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., on the topic. Manchin did not attend the press conference announcing the effort, but some things Democrats mentioned, like legislation addressing critical minerals, would fall under his panel’s jurisdiction. 

Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs ranking member Rand Paul, R-Ky., said his panel’s chairman, Gary Peters, D-Mich., hasn’t discussed China competition legislation with him. 

Senate Small Business ranking member Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she has talked with panel Chair Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., about pieces their panel can contribute, but they’re still in early discussions about what any small business assistance would look like. 

While Ernst, who voted against the chips and science law, is open to this follow-up effort, she also cautioned Democrats against loading up the package with unnecessary spending or unrelated policies. 

“I think there is room for bipartisan agreement. And we have seen Democrats and Republicans come together full force against China,” she said. “It just depends on what the package looks like, truly, because what we don’t want to see is some sort of omnibus Christmas bill. We want to stay focused on China.”

Democrats’ outreach to Republicans so far seems to be limited. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a China hawk, put out a statement Thursday criticizing Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and top Democrats for holding a “partisan press conference” instead of talking to Republicans. 

“We need to strengthen our military, rebuild our industrial base, safeguard our research, and protect our capital markets,” Rubio said. “I am ready to work with anyone to get this done, but it does not appear Senator Schumer and the Biden White House are serious.”

Rubio, who opposed the chips and science law, listed 25 bills he thinks should be included in a China competition package. “We cannot pass another bill that allows taxpayer dollars to fund Chinese companies or research that is easily stolen by China,” he said.

The Republicans who seem most interested are those who voted for the chips and science law. 

“I think it’s one of the rare areas where we see eye to eye with our friends across the aisle, which is that China should be diverted from a course of conflict and confrontation, and that we need to develop a comprehensive strategy to help them from hurting themselves and the world,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said.

Romney said he’s working with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and others on a follow up measure to his bill passed a few years ago that called for a China strategy development process.

“Senator King would like to accelerate that. We’re working with him on that,” Romney said. “That may be included [in the larger package]. We’ll see.”

Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who was the lead Republican on the chips and science law, said he also has some bills with Democrats that would be good candidates for the next package. 

While he acknowledged Democrats will need to limit new spending to attract Republican support, Young was optimistic about the prospects for bipartisanship. 

“I would hope that my colleagues irrespective of party would be willing to make strategic investments where necessary for our national security,” he said.

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