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A new bill aims to counter the growing economic threat of China

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Washington can't agree on much these days, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree the U.S. needs to counter the growing economic threat from China. Take semiconductors or computer chips. In the last three decades, the U.S. has gone from making nearly 40% of the world's supply to just 11%. Most of the chips are now made in East Asia. China wants to become the global leader in semiconductors, and the government there is investing heavily.

Well, this week, the House introduced a China competition bill. The Senate passed its version of the bill last summer, and Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana is a co-sponsor. He joins us now. Welcome to the show.

TODD YOUNG: Good to be with you, Asma.

KHALID: So Senator, you have long been advocating for this bill. The Senate passed something, you know, months ago with considerable bipartisan support. And now, just this week, Democrats in the House released their version of the bill. But the top Republican on the House Science and Tech Committee has said the House bill is full of, quote, "poison pills."

So I want to begin there. It feels like the tenor of the conversation in the House doesn't really bode well for bipartisan consensus here, at least right now.

YOUNG: Well Asma, what happened here is after our strong bipartisan vote out of the Senate, a decision was made to try and advance the Build Back Better legislation. That, of course, stirred up a lot of partisan disagreement. And that's now behind us.

But in order to get this done in a more rapid fashion, I think Democrats decided to go it alone in producing the House work product. I don't think that was probably the best approach, but, you know, I commend the administration for at least turning back to this important legislation. And now we do need to work in a bipartisan fashion as we go to conference committee to earn Republican support.

KHALID: So let's talk specifically about semiconductors. Both bills call for an investment of $52 billion to try to boost American competitiveness in this industry. What makes you think that America can catch up? I mean, has the global market changed to some degree irreversibly at this point?

YOUNG: It really has not. My counsel tells me - and my counsel, by the way, are the major automakers, those who make our weapons platforms and so many of our key industry leaders - and they indicate that though we're 100% dependent on other countries right now to source our high-end, very sophisticated computer chips, we can fairly quickly constitute productive capacity in the next couple of years. But we need to incentivize onshoring of these large fabrication plants. We have to get in the game, as it were, and this legislation makes a very large step forward in that direction.

KHALID: Senator, it has been impossible, it seems, to get Republicans and Democrats to agree on a lot. You know, I'm thinking of the Build Back Better agenda or voting rights. And some Republicans have made it clear that they're planning to obstruct anything that President Biden wants to do. So I am curious why you think Republicans would be willing to give him a legislative, quote, "win" in a midterm election year.

YOUNG: The previous agenda that the president has embraced, I think most observers - Republican or Democrat - would agree it's been much further to the left than we expected and that probably the American people thought they were getting. So I think this legislation, assuming it remains focused on the national security challenges we have, can bring us together.

There are no doubt some on the left and right who always want to play political games and we'll continue to experience that in our country. But I think most of our legislators are fixated on the very serious national security challenges that we're facing right now that will lead to a success on this legislation.

KHALID: I want to step back for a moment and just get your assessment of how much you think an R&D bill could help accomplish in reasserting American economic authority because we are at this moment when China is already the world's largest manufacturer and exporter and, you know, by some measures, the world's largest economy.

YOUNG: Well, I'm told that not only have we seen a significant reduction in the federal funding for physical sciences research, research into areas like artificial intelligence, but there's increasingly a number of really strong brand applications that have to be denied at our federal research universities and at our Department of Energy labs and so forth. So this will harness the talent of the best researchers in the world who are located through our university systems and within our technological infrastructure here in the U.S. It will also establish some tech hubs across the heartland of America so that as these breakthroughs occur, more venture capitalists can descend on land-grant universities, start up new businesses.

And we can harness the talent and the vision of the American people themselves, our private sector. So in the spirit of this space race, when the government partnered effectively with the private sector, we can do the same thing to meet this moment. And we can ensure that this remains the American 21st century.

KHALID: That's Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana. He's co-sponsor of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. Thanks for joining us.

YOUNG: Thanks so much, Asma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.