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Senate Dems' secretive China bill

Jan 16, 2024
Illustration of China's flag with lightning bolts replacing the four small stars.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A bipartisan China competition package is likely to be one of this year's biggest fights — but it's currently taking a backseat to other priorities.

Why it matters: Bashing China wins bipartisan applause as do few other subjects. If a bill comes to pass — and that's a big if — it could affect energy, tech and other sectors.

  • The House's select China committee released key policy recommendations at the end of last year with lots of energy repercussions.
  • In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tasked committee chairs in May with assembling a big China package.

Driving the news: In interviews over the last month, Senate committee chairs told Axios that they're interested in advancing bipartisan legislation addressing the economic challenge that China poses.

  • Senate buy-in will be crucial because it's unlikely a China package will struggle in the House, where Republican leadership has prioritized the select committee.

But senators were mum on details.

  • "There are a variety of bills being discussed in a number of committees," Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chair Gary Peters told Axios last month, adding that he's focused on cybersecurity proposals.
  • Senate Foreign Relations Chair Ben Cardin said his committee is "in the process of getting our part of the bill done." Its portion "runs from economic competitiveness to dealing with energy issues to human rights issues."
  • Finance Chair Ron Wyden said he's "very much committed to building" on the CHIPS Act with more legislation.

Zoom in: Armed Services Chair Jack Reed said he'd expect China policies in the House to be fair game for the final version of this year's defense policy bill.

  • The House's recommendations called for new resource reserves, more DOE research into "new energy technologies," and fixing a wonky budget issue that's holding up foreign investment to counter China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Yes, but: Reed said he doesn't expect the Senate to advance its own China package any time soon, pointing to the urgency of other priorities — including Ukraine and AI.

  • Senate Budget Chair Sheldon Whitehouse was even more bearish on the chamber assembling its own package soon, saying AI "has moved ahead of the China bill as a priority."
  • "I think people are moving some options around to see what that would look like," he said, "but [are doing so] in the middle of trying to solve Ukraine-slash-border and budget-slash-approps and all of our other issues."
  • Schumer's office didn't respond to requests for comment.

The big picture: Rep. Earl Blumenauer — ranking member on the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee — believes the House select committee's work could overcome how "the muscles for working together in a bipartisan way have atrophied."

  • "It would be a bit of a stretch, but it is totally possible," Blumenauer said.
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