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The Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, formerly known as the Endless Frontier Act, on Tuesday. The bill approves hundreds of billions of dollars in spending for science and technology at a range of government agencies, as well as $52 billion for chip manufacturing. The heavily debated and amended bill now heads to the House, where it faces an uphill battle against key Democrats who have, up to this point, vocally opposed it.
The Senate fast-tracked the law, which was first introduced last year and reintroduced in both the House and the Senate in April, in a matter of months, as Democrats and Republicans alike seemed to agree on the urgency of fending off China's technological supremacy with investments in research at home.
"The ambitions of this legislation are large, but the premise is simple: If we want American workers and American companies to keep leading the world, the federal government must invest in science, basic research and innovation, just as we did decades after the Second World War," Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a co-sponsor of the bill, said in his remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday.
The original Endless Frontier Act would have set aside $100 billion for a new Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation within the National Science Foundation, which would then invest in research on emerging technologies like semiconductors and AI. That proposal faced significant pushback inside the Senate from lawmakers concerned this funding would dramatically reorient the National Science Foundation away from basic scientific research.
As the bill flew through the Senate, lawmakers pushed to divert some of the bill's funding to other government agencies, like the Department of Energy's National Laboratories and the Department of Defense's DARPA program.
Republican Sen. Todd Young, Schumer's co-author on the Senate bill, initially expressed serious reservations about how the revised bill stripped away funding from the new tech Directorate, initially calling it a "poison pill." But Young came around, and spent much of this week championing the bill in its new form on the Senate floor and on social media. "My #EndlessFrontierAct just passed the @SenateFloor," Young tweeted after the bill's passage. "Let the record show that, at this moment, we stood united in our fight against the Chinese Communist Party."
In addition to these changes to the core proposal, senators attached a slew of new provisions to benefit certain sectors of the tech industry, including appropriating $52 billion to boost chip manufacturing in the U.S. Another amendment would add $10 billion for NASA's lunar landing program, a provision Sen. Bernie Sanders called "welfare to Mr. [Jeff] Bezos," who owns the space company Blue Origin.
The semiconductor industry applauded the bill upon its passing. "Senate passage of USICA is a pivotal step toward strengthening U.S. semiconductor production and innovation and an indication of the strong, bipartisan support in Washington for ensuring sustained American leadership in science and technology," John Neuffer, CEO of the Semiconductor Industry Association, said in a statement.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar also managed to squeeze in an antitrust provision that would increase filing fees for large mergers.
The final bill includes a litany of oddball items vaguely linked to China — from a prohibition on the sale of shark fins to an exemption on country-of-origin labeling for cooked king crab. By the time it passed, the bill stretched more than 2,000 pages long.
The mad rush to stuff the bill full of tangential amendments was as good a sign as any early on that the law could actually pass the Senate. But it faces a bigger challenge in the House, where Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, could block its advancement. Johnson has written publicly about her opposition to the Endless Frontier Act, arguing that it creates a "shiny new object" that gets the attention of policymakers to the detriment of NSF's fundamental research mission."
The House is currently taking a piecemeal approach, introducing slices of the bill rather than trying to move the entire bill forward. But to become law, the House and Senate will each have to pass the same language. The sheer complexity of the Senate bill complicates that work, and much of it will happen behind closed doors.
And so the ongoing debate over the Endless Frontier Act remains ... well, endless.