Bipartisan Plans to Move Aggressively on China Face Political Hurdles in Congress

WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats are pressing for major legislation to counter rising threats from China, but mere weeks into the new Congress, a bipartisan consensus is at risk of dissipating amid disputes about what steps to take and a desire among many Republicans to wield the issue as a weapon against President Biden.

In the House and Senate, leading lawmakers in both parties have managed in an otherwise bitterly divided Congress to stay unified about the need to confront the dangers posed by China’s militarization, its deepening ties with Russia and its ever-expanding economic footprint.

But a rising chorus of Republican vitriol directed at Mr. Biden after a Chinese spy balloon flew over the United States this month upended that spirit — giving way to G.O.P. accusations that the president was “weak on China” — and suggested that the path ahead for any bipartisan action is exceedingly narrow.

“When the balloon story popped, so to speak, it felt like certain people used that as an opportunity to bash President Biden,” said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, the top Democrat on the select panel the House created to focus on competition with China.

“And it felt like no matter what he did, they wanted to basically call him soft on the C.C.P., and unable to protect America,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. “That’s where I think we can go wayward politically,”

For now, only a few, mostly narrow ventures have drawn enough bipartisan interest to have a chance at advancing amid the political tide. They include legislation to ban TikTok, the Beijing-based social media platform lawmakers have warned for years is an intelligence-gathering gold mine for the Chinese government; bills that would ban Chinese purchases of farmland and other agricultural real estate, especially in areas near sensitive military sites; and measures to limit U.S. exports and outbound investments to China.

Such initiatives are limited in scope, predominantly defensive and relatively cheap — which lawmakers say are important factors in getting legislation over the hurdles posed by this split Congress. And, experts point out, none are issues that would be felt keenly by voters, or translate particularly well into political pitches on the 2024 campaign trail.

A Divided Congress

The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.

“There would be nervousness among Republicans about giving the administration a clear win, but I’m just not sure that the kind of legislation they’ll be looking at would be doing that,” said Zack Cooper, who researches U.S.-China competition at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s more things that would penalize China than be focused on investing in the U.S. in the next couple of years.”

At the start of the year, the momentum behind bipartisan efforts to confront China seemed strong, with Republicans and Democrats banding together to pass the bill setting up the select panel and legislation to deny China crude oil exports from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. A resolution condemning Beijing for sending the spy balloon over the United States passed unanimously after Republican leaders decided not to take the opportunity to rebuke Mr. Biden, as many on the right had clamored for.

But with partisan divisions beginning to intensify and a presidential election looming, it appears exceedingly unlikely that Congress will be able to muster an agreement as large or significant as the major legislation last year to subsidize microchip manufacturing and scientific research — a measure that members of both parties described as only one of many policy changes that would be needed to counter China. 

“The biggest challenge is just the overall politicized environment that we’re in right now and the lack of trust between the parties,” said Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the chairman of the new select panel, who has committed to make his committee an “incubator and accelerator” on China legislation. “Everyone has their guard up.”

Still, there are some areas of potential compromise. Many lawmakers are eyeing 2023 as the year Congress can close any peepholes China may have into the smartphones of more than 100 million TikTok American users, but they have yet to agree on how to try to do so.

Some Republicans have proposed imposing sanctions to ice TikTok out of the United States, while Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, wants to allow the president to block the platform by lifting statutory prohibitions on banning foreign information sources.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Senator Angus King, independent of Maine and a member of the panel, want to prevent social media companies under Chinese or Russian influence from operating in the United States unless they divest from foreign ownership.

But none have yet earned a seal of approval from Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the Democrat who is chairman of the committee and whose support is considered critical to any bill’s success. He was the chief architect of last year’s sweeping China competition bill, known as the CHIPS and Science Act, and he wants to tackle foreign data collection more broadly.

“We’ve had a whack-a-mole approach on foreign technology that poses a national security risk,” Mr. Warner said in an interview, bemoaning that TikTok was only the latest in a long line of foreign data firms, like the Chinese telecom giant Huawei and the Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab, to be targeted by Congress. “We need an approach that is constitutionally defensible.”

There is a similar flurry of activity among Republican and Democratic lawmakers proposing bans on Chinese purchases of farmland  in sensitive areas. But lawmakers remain split over how broad such a ban should be, whether agents of other adversary nations ought also to be subject to the prohibition, and whether Congress ought to update the whole process of reviewing foreign investment transactions, by including the Agriculture Department in the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency group.

“It’s actually kind of a more fraught issue than you would imagine,” Mr. Gallagher said.

Lawmakers in both parties who want to put forth legislation to limit U.S. goods and capital from reaching Chinese markets are also facing challenges. The Biden administration has already started to take unilateral action on the issue, and further steps could box lawmakers out. Even if Congress can stake out a role for itself, it is not entirely clear which committee would take the lead on a matter that straddles a number of areas of jurisdiction.  

Even before the balloon incident, existential policy differences between Republicans and Democrats, particularly around spending, made for slim odds that Congress could achieve sweeping legislative breakthroughs regarding China. Architects of last year’s law were dour about the prospect of the current Congress attempting anything on a similar scale.

“The chances of us passing another major, comprehensive bill are not high,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the lead Republican on the CHIPS effort, who noted that with the slim G.O.P. majority in the House, it would be difficult to pass a costly investment bill.

G.O.P. lawmakers have been demanding cuts to the federal budget, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, has indicated that even military spending might be on the chopping block. Though no one has specifically advocated cutting programs related to countering China, that has some lawmakers nervous, particularly since certain recent ventures Congress created to beef up security assistance to Taiwan have already failed to secure funding at their intended levels.

That backdrop could complicate even bipartisan ventures seeking to authorize new programs to counter China diplomatically and militarily, such as a proposal in the works from Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator James Risch of Idaho, the top Republican, to step up foreign aid and military assistance to American allies in Beijing’s sphere of influence.

That likely means that action on any comprehensive China bill would need to be attached to another must-pass bill, such as the annual defense authorization bill, to break through the political logjams of this Congress, said Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security. 

“China has risen as a political matter and things are possible that weren’t before, but it has not risen so high as to make the hardest things politically possible,” Mr. Fontaine said.

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