Legislation to boost domestic production and advanced research of semiconductors may acquire the bipartisan support it needs in the evenly divided US Senate by being viewed as a poke at China.
“There’s a lot of consensus on the China issue,” Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio says. “If we can’t agree on a bill regarding China, we should probably close this place.”
The Endless Frontiers Act, which commits $120 billion over five years to conduct research by elite US science and space agencies, has a not-so-veiled objective of preventing China from dominating the manufacture of advanced tools and devices in key technology fields, such as semiconductors, quantum computing, artificial intelligence and 5G wireless.
A substitute version of the Endless Frontiers Act was introduced as the Senate Commerce Committee began its markup.
The substitute sought to calm a spat between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy over their respective research and development roles regarding technology advancement. Despite reservations about reduced NSF funding, the legislation moved out of committee with a bipartisan 24-4 vote and cleared a procedural hurdle to move to the Senate floor by an 86-11 vote.
In the committee mark-up, the measure gained 100 pages, including NASA funding, a shark-fin provision, king crab labeling requirements and a call for a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in China. Attaching unrelated amendments important to one or more senators is usually a sign the legislation is likely to advance.
Senate Republicans have signaled further amendments when the bill is debated on the Senate floor. Democrats have filed amendments, too. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the prime sponsor of the Endless Frontier Act, opened the door to amendments in his bid to retain bipartisan support. Senators can expect an amendment to restore some of the $100 billion allocation for an NSF technology directorate that was cut in committee to $45 billion.
Research on security-related technology will be beefed up with amendments to incorporate the Safeguarding American Innovation Act and the Strategic Competition Act, which could complicate final passage. Concerns have been raised about adding subjectivity to the review of cultural and educational exchanges and visas for international students seeking to study science and technology or engage in research in the United States.
As the Endless Frontiers Act moves forward, work also has begun on provisions of the $250 billion CHIPS Act, which is intended to buttress the US semiconductor industry and ensure a domestic supply chain from silicon wafers to sophisticated chip manufacturing tools. This legislation has attracted problematic amendments, too. Senate Republicans have warned that requiring federal contractors to pay prevailing wages could endanger bipartisan support. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said the legislation is “not ready for prime time”.
Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders wants to prevent semiconductor companies from using federal aid to buy back stock or bump up executive pay. Sanders also wants to cut NASA’s $10 billion lunar landing program linked to Blue Origin, which is owned by Jeff Bezos. That may be a tough ask since Blue Origin is based in Washington, which is represented by Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.
If we lose these highly skilled jobs and know-how to China, the United States will never recapture them. Further, we risk dependence on a strategic competitor for the advanced semiconductors that power our economy, military and critical infrastructure.
Whatever ultimately passes the Senate will need to be reconciled in a conference committee with the House-passed NSF for the Future Act. President Biden called for major investment in technology research and semiconductor industry manufacturing in his inaugural speech to Congress, citing the opportunity to create good-paying jobs domestically and preventing China from eclipsing US technology leadership.
A bipartisan group of more than 50 Members of Congress sent Biden a letter last month encouraging his support for the Endless Frontier and CHIPS legislation in the face of “aggressive plans by the Chinese Communist Party” to spend $150 billion on semiconductor manufacturing subsidies and $1.4 trillion toward global technology domination.
“The United States must work with our allies and strategic partners to out-scale the CCP in manufacturing capabilities for advanced semiconductors,” the letter said. “If we lose these highly skilled jobs and know-how to China, the United States will never recapture them. Further, we risk dependence on a strategic competitor for the advanced semiconductors that power our economy, military and critical infrastructure.“
Signers included Schumer, Rubio, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler.