Senate GOP Holds Ugly Hostage Gambit On Competitiveness

The bill’s name — the “United States Innovation and Competition Act” (USICA), though it’s had a few different titles — probably makes it sound boring, but it’s proving to be one of the most controversial legislative disputes of current Congress. .

It is a bill that lawmakers in both parties and both chambers have been working on for nearly a year. USICA’s point is relatively simple: It aims to bolster US competitiveness and counter China, largely by addressing domestic semiconductor shortages. It’s not the sexiest political fight, but it covers everything from manufacturing to jobs, trade to national security.

With this in mind, the House and Senate have already passed versions of the bill and sent the matter to a conference committee that began in April merging the competing measures into one final package. The plan was to pass the USICA for the fall elections.

Those plans were largely on track until last week, when Senate Leader Mitch McConnell suggested: he would kill the bill unless the Democrats give up an unrelated piece of legislation that the Republicans don’t like. Yesterday, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas published a tweet suggesting he’s on board with McConnell’s hostage strategy.

“Resembling [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer is giving up USICA, including strengthening the fragile supply chain for high-performance semiconductors. Major chip makers are likely to abandon their plans to build manufacturing facilities in the US. Huge blow to US national security, economy and high-paying jobs.”

The Biden White House was not satisfiedand when press officer Karine pushed Jean-Pierre back against the Texan letter, Cornyn responded“You people in the Biden administration are very confused.”

Perhaps. The GOP’s legislative strategies can be somewhat confusing. That said, I may be able to help disambiguate the details.

Schumer is not “give up” of the competition law. On the contrary, he and the Democratic Senate leaders are enthusiastic supporters of USICA. They are also working on a separate budget reconciliation package, which is currently aimed at reducing the cost of prescription drugs.

Senate Republicans don’t have the resources to stop the reconciliation bill — as a procedural issue, it can’t be filibusted — but they can derail the USICA legislation they ostensibly support because it can be filibusted.

In other words, GOP leaders are effectively telling the Democratic majority, “Stop trying to make drugs more affordable, or we’ll side with China on the semiconductor shortage.”

Or to use Cornyn’s phrasing, Republicans don’t want to deal a “hard blow” to US national security, economy and high-paying jobs, but GOP senators will do it anyway, unless Democrats give up work on an unrelated bill.

Ironically, it was McConnell who… explained last summer: “The president cannot allow congressional Democrats to hold a bipartisan law hostage over a separate and partisan trial.” Almost exactly a year later, McConnell and his allies now effectively say:“The president must hold Congressional Republicans hostage to a bipartisan law over a separate and partisan process.”

President Joe Biden, for his part, is unimpressed with the hostage strategy, telling a union audience in Cleveland yesterday, referring to threats from Republicans: “Folks, this isn’t right. This is not right.”

At the moment it is not at all clear how and if this impasse will be resolved. That said, the Democratic majority has a few options, one of which is simply the Senate version of USICA by the House. It’s also possible Democrats could try to add USICA provisions to their appeasement package, bypassing Republican tactics.

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