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McConnell stares down Democrats over Build Back Better

The Senate minority leader withdraws support for a bipartisan competitiveness bill

President Joe Biden meets with business leaders and governors to discuss passing competitiveness legislation. Getty Images/Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post

McConnell stares down Democrats over Build Back Better

Congress is considering three versions of a bill to bolster U.S. technological competitiveness with China. But none of them is likely to pass until the Senate figures out what it wants to do about President Joe Biden’s watered-down version of Build Back Better.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is willing to withdraw support from the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) if it means stopping the massive social spending plan.

With Republicans poised to make considerable gains in November’s congressional midterm elections, Democrats are looking to bring home a major legislative victory as they prepare to start campaigning. Their hopes rest on USICA or on a budget reconciliation package that salvages components of Build Back Better.

“Let me be perfectly clear: there will be no bipartisan USICA as long as Democrats are pursuing a partisan reconciliation bill,” McConnell told followers over Twitter.

All versions of USICA aim to increase America’s competitiveness with China by investing in key technologies like the production of semiconductor chips. In its latest version, the 2,300-page bill also includes sections on rocket test infrastructure, the commercial development of low-Earth orbit, mechanical wristwatches, and a ban on the sale of shark fins.

In June of 2021, a group of bipartisan senators put together and passed the first version of USICA. Almost a year later, in February 2022, the House of Representatives independently passed H.R. 4521, also called USICA. That version was then referred to the Senate for consideration. Instead of adopting it, the Senate stripped the text, replaced it with the contents of its own bill, and passed the bill, creating a third version of the legislation.

To enact USICA, Congress must now reconcile the version passed in the House, known as the “COMPETES Act” and the one passed in the Senate. As one possible solution, senators from both parties have suggested focusing on the part of the bill that funds semiconductor research and turning that portion into its own bill called the “CHIPS Act.”

Legislators on both sides of the aisle see a pressing need to keep up with China as it continues to make technological advances such as the development of hypersonic missiles late last year. U.S. government contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. only produced a successful test of its own hypersonic missile this past Wednesday.

“A secure, productive, and innovative America that can outcompete China is something all 100 senators want,” McConnell said in May of last year. “A number of our colleagues have assembled a proposal that touches on a long list of subjects; everything from funding universities to regional economic development, to Indo-Pacific geopolitics, to artificial intelligence, to cybersecurity. Legislation this broad needs a thorough, robust, and a bipartisan floor process.”

Blocking the pathway to USICA isn’t a politically easy decision and comes as a surprise to many Republicans. But it might be McConnell’s only way to stop Senate Democrats from passing Biden’s domestic spending package, something McConnell sees as a one-sided attempt to set the trajectory for the American economy. Instead of the 60 votes normally needed to break a filibuster, Senate Democrats under Schumer’s leadership only need a simple majority to pass the spending package through a parliamentary procedure called budget reconciliation. As long as they can retain the support of all 50 Senate Democrats, they can pass the bill without a single Republican vote, using Vice President Kamala Harris as a tie-breaker.

While some Republicans expressed concern at the bill’s progress, others joined McConnell in condemning Senate Democrats for introducing an extremely partisan piece of legislation on the eve of congressional agreement.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a longtime supporter of the USICA, posted a statement to his website blaming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for the impasse.

“I hope the Democratic leader will reconsider and will abandon his partisan spending spree so we can spend the next three weeks passing the CHIPS funding as part of the USICA with broad bipartisan support," Cornyn said.

Democrats have yet to work out the finer details of their spending plan. Last year, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., torpedoed the $4 trillion Build Back Better package, citing concerns over inflation. This time around, Schumer and Manchin have been negotiating a compromise, focusing primarily on prescription drugs, tax policy, and climate change.

With mounting voter concerns about a possible recession and climbing consumer prices, congressional Democratic candidates find themselves in need of a win to distance themselves from the administration’s tanking approval ratings. A recent poll conducted by The New York Times in partnership with Siena College found that only 33 percent of Americans nationwide approved of the president’s performance. Even if USICA doesn’t pass, the spending package could show voters that the Democratic Party can provide leadership from Congress, if not from the White House.

For now, Schumer, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Sunday night, must continue to negotiate virtually as McConnell applies pressure and as campaigns grow closer.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD reporter covering politics in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College.

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