Susan Walsh / AP
WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a bill to boost US production of semiconductors and the development of artificial intelligence and other technologies in the face of growing international competition, especially from China.
The 68-32 vote for the bill demonstrates how the economic confrontation with China is an issue that unites both sides in Congress. It’s a rarity in a time of division as pressure increases on Democrats to change Senate rules to overcome Republican opposition and deadlock.
The centerpiece of the bill is an emergency allocation of $ 50 billion to the Commerce Department to support semiconductor development and manufacturing through research and incentive programs previously authorized by Congress. The overall cost of the bill would increase spending by about $ 250 billion, with most spending occurring in the first five years.
Supporters have described it as the biggest investment in scientific research the country has seen in decades. It comes as the domestic share of semiconductor manufacturing in the world has steadily eroded from 37% in 1990 to around 12% now, and a shortage of chips has exposed vulnerabilities in the supply chain. American supply.
“The premise is simple, if we want American workers and American businesses to continue to run the world, the federal government must invest in science, basic research and innovation, just like we did decades later. World War II, ”said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y. “Whoever wins the race for the technologies of the future will be the world’s economic leader with profound consequences for foreign policy and national security.”
Senatorial Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Said the bill was incomplete because it did not incorporate more Republican-sponsored amendments. He nevertheless supported him.
“Needless to say, the final adoption of this legislation cannot be the Senate’s last word on our competition with China,” he said. “It certainly won’t be mine.
President Joe Biden applauded the passage of the bill in a statement Tuesday evening, saying: “As other countries continue to invest in their own research and development, we cannot risk falling behind. America must maintain its position as the most innovative and productive nation on Earth. ”
Senators went through days of debate and amendment until Tuesday’s final vote. Schumer’s office said 18 Republican amendments would have received votes as part of the bill’s passage. He also said the Senate had already held as many roll-call votes on the amendments this year as it did at the last Congress, when the Senate was under Republican control.
While the bill enjoys bipartisan support, a select group of GOP senators have reservations about its costs.
One of the provisions of the bill would create a new branch focused on artificial intelligence and quantum science with the National Science Foundation. The bill would authorize up to $ 29 billion over five years for the foundation’s new branch with an additional $ 52 billion for its programs.
Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., Said Congress should cut the foundation’s budget, not increase it. He called the agency “king of wasteful spending”. The agency funds about a quarter of all federally-funded research conducted by colleges and universities in the United States.
“The bill is nothing more than a grand government response that will make our country weaker, not stronger,” said Paul.
But Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Noted that greater federal investment in the physical sciences was requested during President George W. Bush’s administration to ensure the economic competitiveness of the United States.
“At the time, I’m pretty sure we thought we were in a track and field competition where our competitor was, oh, I don’t know, maybe a U-turn behind us. I’m pretty sure. Now that the decade has gone on, we are looking over our shoulders and realizing that the competition is winning, ”said Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The senior Republican on the committee also weighed in to support the bill.
“This is an opportunity for the United States to strike a blow in the name of the response to the unfair competition that we are witnessing from Communist China,” said Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
Senators tried to strike a balance by drawing attention to China’s growing influence. They want to avoid stoking anti-Asian rhetoric that divides when hate crimes against Asian Americans increased during the coronavirus pandemic.
Other measures clarify national security concerns and target money laundering schemes or cyber attacks by entities on behalf of the Chinese government. There are also “buy in America” provisions for infrastructure projects in the United States.
Senators added provisions that reflect changing attitudes toward China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. One would prevent federal money for the Wuhan Institute of Virology as new investigations continue into the origins of the virus and possible links to the lab’s research. The city has recorded some of the first cases of the coronavirus.
It’s unclear whether the measure will find support in the Democratic-led House, where the Science Committee is expected to review that chamber’s version soon. Representative Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Who has worked with Schumer for two years on the legislation included in the bill, called it the biggest investment in science and technology since the Apollo space flight program there was. is half a century old.
“I’m sure we’ll have a great product on the president’s desk,” Schumer said.
Biden said he looked forward to working with the House on the legislation, “and I look forward to signing it as soon as possible.”