On Tuesday, Democrats’ negotiations on a bipartisan infrastructure bill fell apart for good, as Republicans failed to budge past $330 billion in new investment — far from the $1 trillion that President Biden planned for the effort, which effectively doubles as his climate bill. In another blow to Biden’s agenda earlier in the week, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin — whose state represents around 0.5 percent of the U.S. population — determined that there would be no federal voting-rights push for the rest of the nation when he announced he would oppose the landmark For the People Act.
With the clock rapidly counting down the hours until Democrats are expected to lose their legislative control of Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is facing a formidable challenge: How does his party pass big, bipartisan, 12-figure bills without resorting to the once-a-fiscal-year process of budget reconciliation? The answer, at least on Tuesday, appeared to involve leaning into the threat of Chinese military and economic advancement amid fumbling efforts at home. The $250 billion United States Innovation and Competition Act proposed by Schumer and Indiana Republican Todd Young passed on a 68 to 32 vote. According to the Washington Post, it involves significant investment in technological research:
Lawmakers authorized the lion’s share of the money under the new legislation, totaling $190 billion, for a major rethinking of federal science, technology, and research spending. They created a new technology division within the National Science Foundation to focus on emerging areas including artificial intelligence. The Senate also gave a green light to $10 billion for the Commerce Department to invest in new technology hubs so that other regions and cities across the country can attract the same sort of economic opportunities as Silicon Valley …
With it, lawmakers also approved a host of proposals that seek to limit China’s economic aspirations and curb its political influence. The bill opens the door for new sanctions targeting Beijing over its human rights practices, commissions a new study about the origin of the coronavirus and calls for a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics. It even authorizes $300 million specifically to counter the political influence of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Post also notes that there was a significant amount of pork involved in the debate over the bill, which may have helped grease open the deadlocked Senate to get the bill over the necessary 60 votes:
The broad nature of the bill also opened the door for lawmakers to push some of their pet projects, raising alarms among both parties. Senators secured earlier in the debate a prohibition on the sale of shark fins, for example, and a provision requiring online merchants to reveal the country of origin behind the goods they sell — except in the case of cooked king crab. At one point, a trio of Republican senators even tried to ban research on human-animal hybrids, though the effort ultimately faltered.
In the version that passed the Senate, lawmakers did leave intact a $10 billion authorization for two lunar lander contracts, a provision that could benefit Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post. Cantwell, whose committee oversees NASA and helped craft the bill, spearheaded the spending as part of a bipartisan amendment adopted earlier in the debate. Her efforts ignited a controversy because Blue Origin is based in her home state.
The bill also included more direct language identifying China as a threat, including a clause that designates the country as the “greatest geopolitical and geo-economic challenge” to American foreign policy and some $15 billion to counter Chinese disinformation online. In response to the legislation, over 65 nongovernmental and political groups released a statement saying that the effort exacerbates the “growing Cold War mentality driving the U.S. approach to China.” (Among the signees are the Justice Democrats, which suggests the bill may face criticism by progressive Democrats in the House.)
Schumer did not see the bill in that light, claiming that the United States Innovation and Competition Act serves to “build ourselves up rather than just tear them down.” But whether or not it’s wise for Democrats to advance Republicans’ escalatory rhetoric — the bill is also known as the Endless Frontier Act — it’s unlikely that Schumer will be able to pass such a bill again anytime soon.