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Senate shrinks Endless Frontier Act and packs it with pet provisions

Bans of shark fin sales. Carveouts for cooked king crab. Lawmakers are stuffing a major tech R&D bill even as they limit its size.

Senate shrinks Endless Frontier Act and packs it with pet provisions

Senator Todd Young co-sponsored the original Endless Frontier Act.

Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A bill that aims to inject billions of dollars into tech research and development in a bid to counter competition from China is speeding through the Senate. But along the way, the so-called Endless Frontier Act is shrinking in size and picking up seemingly unrelated amendments from lawmakers looking to attach pet provisions to a rare piece of bipartisan legislation that looks like it has a chance of passing.

The Endless Frontier Act passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday with amendments that drastically reduced the amount of funding that the original bill set aside to establish a new tech directorate at the National Science Foundation, which would fund research in areas like AI and quantum computing. While the original bill called for a $100 billion investment in the directorate, the committee accepted amendments that would shrink that to just $40 billion, a portion of which would be redirected to the Department of Energy's National Laboratories.

"I regard this legislation and characterized it as a poison pill piece of legislation," said Republican Sen. Todd Young, who co-sponsored the original bill with Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. "It would highly underfund the tech directorate, hollowing it out."

But the committee didn't just reduce the size of the bill. Lawmakers also tried to fill it with a wide array of amendments that had little if anything to do with tech, using sometimes tenuous ties to China to justify their inclusion.

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, for one, asked his fellow lawmakers early on in the hearing to picture a shark spiraling to the bottom of the ocean after having its fins cut off to make shark fin soup. The Democratic senator wasn't drawing that mental image as some morose analogy for the U.S.'s once fierce but now declining competitiveness. It was, instead, a literal plea that the committee amend the Endless Frontier Act to ban shark fin sales once and for all.

"China is the single biggest driver of demand for shark fins," Schatz declared, by way of explanation.

Yet it worked. Following some pushback from Republicans, Schatz's shark-fin amendment was adopted.

The rush to pack the bill suggested that lawmakers at least expect the Endless Frontier Act — a bipartisan, bicameral bill — to pass the Senate. And California Democrat Rep. Ro Khanna, who co-sponsored the bill in the House, said in a statement that he expects that body to take up the bill in its markup of the National Science Foundation Reauthorization bill tomorrow. "I look forward to working with my colleagues in both chambers to [ensure] this gets fully funded at our initial $100 billion amount," Khanna said.

But while there may be widespread agreement on the need to counter the threat China's tech sector poses to national security and American leadership, many of the amendments introduced in the Senate Wednesday were full of pork — or, more accurately, "cooked king crab."

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, for example, introduced an amendment that would require online sellers to disclose the country of origin of the goods they're selling, providing more transparency about products that are made in China. That amendment prompted a lengthy back-and-forth over how such a requirement would affect the seafood industry. Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska offered to help Sen. Baldwin "get this over the goal line," if only she would exempt certain types of seafood from those disclosure requirements.

Specifically, Sullivan asked Baldwin to create carve-outs for "cooked king crab and tanner crab." Both the Baldwin and the Sullivan amendments were accepted.

Another amendment Sen. Sullivan proposed but later pulled targeted "diversity of thought" on college campuses and would have prohibited federal funding from going to universities that fail to report funding they receive from foreign governments. "Censorship, oppression and one-sided thoughts are characteristics of communist China, not the United States of America," Sullivan said. "[Universities] should not be getting billions of dollars if they're acting in a way that undermines America's interests, especially as it relates to China."

Republican Sen. Mike Lee proposed an even less-related anti-abortion provision, which ultimately failed, that would prohibit universities that receive this funding from using it to study "fetal tissue that's obtained from an abortion."

Other lawmakers stuck closer to the script, introducing amendments broadly related to tech if not the underlying bill. Republican Sen. John Thune introduced an amendment that would lift certain restrictions on autonomous vehicle safety requirements. "The U.S. regulatory framework has got to catch up with private sector innovation in order for these technologies to advance," Thune said, before ultimately withdrawing the amendment.

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters was more successful with his amendment, which would allocate $2 billion for semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S., an investment Peters said would boost the U.S. auto industry in his home state of Michigan. "It is an important issue for my state, but it's an important issue for every one of our states," he said, noting the country's "overdependence on foreign sources for these chips."

The chip shortage is "impacting jobs in America as we speak," Peters said. "If this legislation is about jobs, if it's about competitiveness, if it's about building our economy, if we aren't dealing with the problem that's impacting us right now, then why are we even here?"

Despite the efforts to shave down the funding for the new tech directorate, the tech industry broadly praised the committee's efforts Wednesday. "The Endless Frontier Act is the bold action and investment needed to help our economy, spur innovation in communities across the country, strengthen the American workforce, and increase U.S. global competitiveness," Linda Moore, CEO of the tech lobbying group TechNet said in a statement. "We applaud the Senate Commerce Committee for their bipartisan vote today to advance the Endless Frontier Act out of committee and send it to the Senate floor for a vote."

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