Last-minute Senate drama is threatening to upend what many in Washington see as the last major bipartisan victory the chamber can get this year.
Republicans are indicating that they may derail debate on a massive Senate bill confronting China’s growing economic and geopolitical influence before the Senate leaves town for a recess later this week. Some in the GOP are pressing for more votes on their amendments to the China legislation, a top priority of Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said he was particularly frustrated by what he described as Democratic leadership’s refusal to consider a trade amendment he’s crafted with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
“As of right now there’s been an absolute refusal to let me have a vote,” Crapo said Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve been trying for days.”
Crapo spoke up about his objections during the GOP lunch on Wednesday, according to sources familiar with the exchange, and urged his colleagues to vote against cutting off debate on the bill, which requires 60 votes. He and Wyden are their party’s leaders on the influential Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade.
It’s unclear if Republicans have the votes to block the bill, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, S. 1260 (117), from advancing on Thursday. Senators and aides said they were optimistic that the issues would be worked out.
But the latest Republican resistance imperils Schumer’s plans for a final vote on the bill, which allocates billions in new funding for scientific research and technology to counter China’s economic rise.
Democrats dismissed the emerging GOP posture as simply an effort to extract more concessions from Schumer.
“It’s too big to fail. People have put too much work into this, there’s too much good bipartisan stuff in here for it to go down over some petty objections about procedure,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said of the China bill.
Schumer “is giving [Republicans] every rope they need to hang themselves,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.
While negotiators are still haggling over amendments, the top Republican spearheading the effort said he was “on the cusp” of securing 60 votes for final passage of the bill, which has come together after three months of committee work and a rare robust amendment process on the Senate floor.
The China competitiveness measure is dear to Schumer, who signaled a willingness early on to do whatever it takes to get it done — even indulging Republicans on their proposed changes, allowing several largely noncontroversial GOP amendments to hit the Senate floor this week.
“He kept his word,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Schumer’s counterpart on the legislation, said earlier Wednesday. “I feel incredibly encouraged by what has been a fairly straightforward and uncomplicated regular process.”
If the spirit of bipartisanship carries the China proposal to passage, it won’t last long. Senators could finish up the bill on Thursday. Then, Schumer (D-N.Y.) will try to take up a House-passed bill establishing an independent cross-aisle commission to investigate the Jan. 6 siege at the Capitol. Republicans are vowing to block the effort.
For the moment, senators from both parties marveled Wednesday at the return — however fleeting — to the institutional traditions of the body after years of descent into bitter partisanship that has deepened with Democrats’ 50-50 majority.
“I just love to see the Senate working,” added Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “We’re actually doing a bill on the floor and offering amendments and having debate.”
“I can’t recall when this has happened since I’ve been in the United States Senate,” added Young.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier Wednesday that Republicans were “making pretty good progress” on their push for additional amendments, and Democrats have expressed an openness to many of them.
“This is one of the few good news stories in the United States Senate. We’re actually legislating,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said.
Despite the China bill’s momentum, senators will need to resolve the trade amendment issue and a number of other policy disputes to tee up a final vote on the bill before the Memorial Day break.
In addition to the three amendment votes on Wednesday afternoon, Schumer plans to bring multiple provisions to the floor on Thursday. He also plans to offer a manager’s amendment that will feature input from a number of senators.
Lawmakers on Wednesday were still scrambling to get their pet projects on the floor and work through lingering disputes over rules for the hundreds of billions of dollars the legislation would dole out for research and manufacturing incentives.
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) spoke out against a provision to give NASA $10 billion for a lunar landing program that critics say is likely to be awarded to Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company.
Sanders on Monday introduced an amendment that would strike the provision, and Hawley said he could not support the final bill if the $10 billion stays in.
“It makes you wonder about what else is similarly tucked away in this bill, and if it’s just becoming a Christmas tree for giveaways to corporations and special interests,” Hawley said, adding that he’d be “glad” to join Sanders’ push.
But Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), whose state houses Blue Origin, said she did not expect that amendment to derail the bill’s consideration. She called the language critical to ensuring “competition” for lunar contracts at NASA.
Democrats are also insisting on a provision in the bill’s $52 billion chip manufacturing fund that would require workers at projects funded by the bill to be paid prevailing wage rates. Young and other Republicans have warned that mandate could endanger GOP support, but Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) called it “non-negotiable.”
In addition, U.S. firms that do business in China are quietly pushing back on a proposed amendment from Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) that would crack down on technological transfers between the U.S. and China. The provision would set up a system similar to the interagency Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States to review American firms’ proposed investments in China, potentially applying to industries from health care to semiconductors, defense and others.
Industry groups like the U.S.-China Business Council are concerned the Casey-Cornyn amendment is too broad, but the two are hopeful the amendment could get included in the bipartisan managers’ amendment or receive a straight up-and-down vote on the floor.
“The problem is industry is not generally concerned with national security and somebody’s got to be so that’s our job,” Cornyn said. “So just the fact that industry may find it inconvenient is not dispositive.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Casey said the amendment was “in a holding pattern,” and he was concerned the industry fears had sparked opposition from some Republicans.
“I don’t know if that developed on its own or whether it developed because the business groups ran to some Republicans and said ‘don’t support this,’” Casey said. He added that he was leaning on Cornyn and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), his GOP partners on the amendment, to bring their members back in line by Thursday.
“I would hope it would come together sooner than that,” he said, “but we still have tomorrow. And it’s possible we have to go beyond tomorrow.”