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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A dispute between two powerful Senate committees effectively scuttled an effort to step up federal scrutiny of foreign donations to U.S. research universities, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Chinese influence in higher education has fueled espionage and human rights concerns. But an effort to address it within a sprawling Senate package of measures designed to boost U.S. competitiveness against China sparked a jurisdictional spat that spiked the legislative language.

What's happening: The version of the United States Innovation and Competition Act the Senate took up this week explicitly bars the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) from monitoring large foreign gifts to U.S. universities.

  • Despite that prohibition, the legislation includes a measure passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee authorizing that work by CFIUS, an interagency body chaired by the Treasury secretary that vets foreign investments for potential national security concerns.
  • The bill, though, was amended Tuesday with additional language explicitly prohibiting CFIUS from performing that work or appropriating federal funds for that purpose.
  • While both provisions remain in the overarching bill released by the office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the most recent language barring that CFIUS authority appears to be the operative provision.

The big picture: The original CFIUS language was championed by Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on Foreign Relations.

  • It was designed to address concerns that the Chinese government, in particular, uses its influence at large research institutions to monitor or steal U.S. technology, develop tech to repress Chinese Muslim minorities and seed ideologically aligned campus groups.
  • In a statement to Axios, Risch called the measure "a small investment, given the large cost of the (legislation), to protect our ideas, research and intellectual property before it’s too late, which is often the case.”

Between the lines: Three sources with knowledge of the situation told Axios the change in language was the result of a dispute between the Foreign Relations and Senate Banking committees.

  • "The provision is designed effectively to nullify the (Foreign Relations) CFIUS provision, because we believe, along with CFIUS, that it is completely unworkable," one of the sources said. "CFIUS is not designed, staffed or structured to assess potentially tens of thousands of university gifts."
  • The two other sources said the dispute also had to do with jurisdictional turf.
  • CFIUS falls under Banking's purview, and the sources, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss the matter, said Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the committee's top members, felt they weren't adequately consulted.

Yes, but: The legislative package does include language that would require universities to disclose large foreign gifts.

  • It also contains provisions designed to safeguard research by U.S. labs and agencies from foreign theft and espionage.
  • CFIUS's role in the process, though, appears to have been excised.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm lashed much of the East Coast Sunday and Monday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: Authorities in North Carolina confirmed that two people died in a car crash and that they responded 600 vehicle accidents during the storm on Sunday, per the Washington Post.

4 hours ago - Health

CDC director says COVID-19 messaging should have been clearer

Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic and changing guidance should have been clearer.

State of play: Walensky is being coached by media experts and is planning to have more press briefings by herself in order to ensure that CDC is seen as an independent, scientific entity, rather than as a political one, the Journal reports.

4 hours ago - World

UAE asks U.S. to reinstate Houthi terrorist designation after attack

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (left) listens to United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan during a joint news conference at the State Department iin October. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed asked Secretary of State Tony Blinken in a phone call Monday to re-designate the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization, a senior Emirati official told Axios.

Why it matters: Less than a month after he assumed office, President Biden rolled back the Trump administration’s decision to make the designation. He said it hampered humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. Since then, the Houthis have escalated their attacks against Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region — including an attack Monday in Abu Dhabi.

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