Senate Weighs Investing $120 Billion in Science to Counter China

WASHINGTON – An expansive bill that would put $ 120 billion into fueling scientific innovation by strengthening research on cutting-edge technologies is running through the Senate amid the increasing urgency of Congress to make the United States more competitive with China.

At the center of the sweeping legislation known as the Endless Frontier Act is an investment in the country’s research and development in emerging science and manufacturing on a scale that its advocates have not seen since the Cold War. The Senate voted 86 to 11 on Monday to push the bill beyond a procedural hurdle. Democrats and Republicans agreed, and a vote to approve it, as well as a tranche of related Chinese bills, is expected this month.

The nearly 600-page bill quickly caught on in the Senate, driven by mounting concerns from both parties about Beijing’s critical supply chain bottleneck. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the risks of China’s dominance as healthcare workers faced medical supplies shortages and a global semiconductor shortage has shut down American auto factories and slowed shipments of consumer electronics.

The bill, spearheaded by Senators Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and Majority Leader, and Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, is the backbone of a legislative package that Mr. Schumer requested from the chairs of key recalibration committees in February Relationship of the Nation with China and Safeguarding American Jobs. Taken together, the string of bipartisan bills would represent the most important step that Congress has seriously considered in years to improve the nation’s competitiveness with Beijing.

“If we want to win the next century, the United States must discover the next breakthrough technologies,” said Schumer. “We now have the opportunity to put our country on a path to over-innovate, surpass and surpass the world in emerging industries of the 21st century, with profound consequences for our economic and national security. If we are not leaders in science and innovation, we will fall far behind. “

Passing the law has become a personal priority for Mr Schumer, who early on found himself in a lonely position as one of the earliest and vocal Chinese hawks in the Democratic Party. Now in power, he hopes to steer billions of dollars toward a long-held priority while achieving a largely bipartisan victory despite the high price tag.

“I’ve looked at this for decades and lots of different bills have been introduced by lots of different people,” Schumer said in an interview. “But if you are the majority leader, you have the option of putting such a bill on the floor.”

Despite the bipartisan support for the move, the path for the legislation was not without its challenges, and on Tuesday Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and minority leader, warned that the move was “not primetime ready” and that it would be of a “robust” nature. Round benefit from changes during the Senate debate.

As one of the few laws considered likely this year, the Endless Frontier Act has become a magnet for unrelated parochial elements of the legislature and the target of intense efforts by lobbyists to introduce provisions that are beneficial to individual industries.

It was approved by a key Senate committee last week, but not before lawmakers added more than 500 pages, including laws approving a new round of funding for NASA, a ban on the sale of shark fins, and a mandate to mark the country of origin for king crabs.

“This is not a bill primarily intended to deal with shark fins – although that is important,” said a visibly irritated Mr. Young, listing some of the other unrelated provisions that had been addressed. “It is mainly not supposed to be about aerospace or private space companies. Mainly it should be about surpassing communist China, innovating and growing. “

The legislature, however, was able to repel a number of divisive and alien measures that would have completely sunk the bill.

The legislation would allocate $ 120 billion to support and expand research on new technologies such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence and robotics.

It would include $ 10 billion to create 10 tech hubs to connect manufacturing centers and research universities across the United States to diversify investments rather than building on already established tech giants on the two coasts.

The aim is to position the United States to be at the forefront of emerging technologies while strengthening the country’s manufacturing capacity and building a pipeline of researchers and trainees to accomplish this. This goal has united universities, industry associations and national laboratories which will benefit from it – all about legislation.

“This would really put the spotlight on the next level of innovation,” said Debbie Altenburg, associate vice president at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “There is significant investment in grants, grants and internships so we make sure we invest in domestic workers too.”

However, the question of how the research money can be spent was hotly debated. Mr Young’s complaints last week came as he tried unsuccessfully to block a bipartisan push to divert roughly half of the funds – originally intended for new National Science Foundation initiatives – to laboratories across the country, the operated by the Ministry of Energy.

A bipartisan group of senators who have one or more department-run laboratories in their states, including Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a critical Democratic vote, and Ben Ray Luján, Democrat of New Mexico, had called for the change.

Mr Young had argued that the bill should only be used for applied research that would produce a tangible product that would help the United States compete with China. But many lawmakers in both parties – including the House Science Committee, which must also approve the legislation – have instead worked to redirect it to laboratories in their states and districts doing basic research.

Other senators also took the opportunity to include provisions on pets in the bill.

Washington State Senator Maria Cantwell, Chair of the Commerce Committee, added a full draft permit for NASA. A group of Republicans, led by Senator Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee, has instituted a measure requiring the government to investigate whether the Chinese government is using twin town partnerships as a means of espionage.

The Senators also approved a provision by Senator Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, to pump $ 2 billion into the semiconductor industry to help ease the bottlenecks that have shut down auto plants in Detroit and elsewhere.

Mr Schumer announced Tuesday evening that lawmakers would also consider additional funding for laws passed last year to bolster the semiconductor industry. The negotiations were embroiled in a party-political labor dispute aimed at obliging manufacturers to pay their workers the applicable wages.

The industry is intensely committed to the money.

“This would boost US chip manufacturing and innovation and help keep America at its best competitive for years,” said John Neuffer, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association.

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