WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill on Tuesday that aims to boost U.S. semiconductor manufacturing and the development of artificial intelligence and other technology in the face of growing international competition, particularly from China.
The 68-32 votes in favor of the bill show how the economic confrontation with China is an issue that unites both parties in Congress. That’s a rarity in an era of division, as pressure mounts on Democrats to change Senate rules to get past Republican opposition and stalemate.
The centerpiece of the bill is a $50 billion emergency allocation to the Department of Commerce to support semiconductor development and manufacturing through research and incentive programs previously approved by Congress. The total cost of the bill would increase spending by about $250 billion, with most spending occurring in the first five years.
Proponents described it as the largest investment in scientific research the country has seen in decades. It’s because the country’s share of semiconductor manufacturing worldwide has steadily declined from 37% in 1990 to about 12% today, and a chip shortage has exposed vulnerabilities in the US supply chain.
“The premise is simple: If we want American workers and American companies to continue to lead the world, the federal government must invest in science, fundamental research and innovation, just as we did decades after World War II,” Senate Leader Chuck said. Schumer, D.N.Y. “Whoever wins the race for the technologies of the future will become the global economic leader with profound implications for foreign policy and national security.”
Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the bill was incomplete because it no longer contained Republican-sponsored amendments. He supported it anyway.
“Needless to say, the final approval 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 bill’s passage in a statement Tuesday night, 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 plodded through days of debates and amendments leading up to Tuesday’s final vote. Schumer’s office said 18 Republican amendments will have received votes as part of the bill’s approval. It also said the Senate has already held as many roll-call votes on amendments this year as it did in the last Congress, when the Senate was under Republican control.
While the bill has bipartisan support, a core group of GOP senators has reservations about the cost.
One of the bill’s provisions would create a new directorate focusing on artificial intelligence and quantum science with the National Science Foundation. The bill would allow up to $29 billion over five years for the new branch within the foundation with an additional $52 billion for its programs.
sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Congress should cut, not increase, the foundation’s budget. He called the agency “the king of wasteful spending.” The agency funds about a quarter of all federally supported research conducted by U.S. colleges and universities.
“The bill is nothing more than a major government response that will make our country weaker, not stronger,” said Paul.
But Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., noted that during President George W. Bush’s administration, greater federal investment in the natural sciences had been demanded to ensure the economic competitiveness of the US.
“At the time I’m pretty sure we thought we were on a track where our competitor was, oh I don’t know, maybe half a lap behind us. I’m pretty sure now as the decade has moved on “We’re looking over our shoulder and realizing that the competition is winning,” said Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The leading Republican on the committee also weighed in to support the bill.
“This is an opportunity for the United States to take a hit in response to the unfair competition we are seeing from communist China,” said Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
Senators have tried to strike a balance by drawing attention to China’s growing influence. They want to prevent divisive anti-Asian rhetoric as hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased during the coronavirus pandemic.
Other measures describe national security concerns and target money laundering or cyber-attacks by entities acting on behalf of the Chinese government. There are also “buy America” provisions for infrastructure projects in the US
Senators added provisions reflecting changing attitudes to China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. One would avoid federal funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology as new investigations are underway into the origin of the virus and possible connections to the lab’s research. The city registered some of the first cases of coronavirus.
It’s unclear whether the measure will find support in the Democrat-led House, where the Science Committee is expected to consider that chamber’s version soon. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who spent two years working with Schumer on legislation included in the bill, called it the largest investment in science and technology since the Apollo spaceflight program half a century ago.
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to get a really good product on the president’s desk,” Schumer said.
Biden said he was looking forward to working with the House on the legislation, “and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as possible.”