After months of political bickering and procedural hurdles, the Senate on Tuesday passed a massive science and technology bill to boost the US’s competitiveness with China. The bill will invest billions in emerging technology industries such as artificial intelligence, semiconductors and quantum computing in the US.
The bill — titled the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act or USICA — builds on an earlier proposal by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the Endless Frontier Act. Endless Frontier has been hailed as one of the Biden administration’s first major bipartisan bills. But in the past few months, the bill, considered a mandatory piece of legislation for both parties, had been awash in political mush and much of its original funding was watered down as it went through the Senate process.
As it stands, the bill provides $52 billion for domestic semiconductor manufacturing, as well as a 30 percent increase in funding for the National Science Foundation and $29 billion for a new scientific directorate focused on applied sciences.
“Whoever wins the race for the technologies of the future will become the global economic leader,” Schumer said in a tweet on Tuesday. “We need to invest in science, R&D, production and innovation.”
The Endless Frontier Act was originally intended to provide $100 billion in funding for a new scientific directorate at the National Science Foundation to advance research in emerging technology areas. It would hand out billions to regions across the country to build new tech hubs and encourage tech companies to find homes outside of Silicon Valley and the coasts.
Last month, the package looked doomed as Republicans withdrew their vote to end debate on the bill. Hours after the first cloture vote was held, Schumer reached an agreement with Republicans to vote the following week on parts of the bill they contested. In particular, Republicans were concerned about language in the bill that would require a common wage for semiconductor manufacturers in the US. On Tuesday, an amendment to delete that language was dropped.
In March, President Joe Biden presented his sweeping infrastructure package known as the American Jobs Plan. The original $2 trillion plan included funding for broadband expansion, roads, highways and called for $50 billion for domestic semiconductor manufacturing. Tuesday’s Senate vote marks the next step in meeting parts of the government’s infrastructure goals.
Earlier this year, Biden signed an executive order to allay growing concerns about a global semiconductor shortage. The order called for a 100-day government review of supply chains to address shortcomings in acquiring chips. That review was published Tuesday and the White House launched a new task force to address these supply chain disruptions.
Tuesday’s USICA approval also brings in $10 billion to transform US cities and regions into “technology hubs,” focused on research and development in advanced industries and creating new, high-paying tech jobs off shores. The money will go to the Department of Commerce and cities will be able to tell the government why it should be on the receiving end of these funds.
“This is certainly a welcome injection of resources,” Mike Wallace, legislative director for human development at the National League of Cities, said. The edge last week. “These are funds that will help local officials, but all stakeholders, to think about economic mobility in a regional way.”
USICA was criticized not only from Republicans, but also from progressives such as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Sanders initially voted last month to lower competition law over what he called a “multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout,” which would allow $10 billion for Amazon CEO’s aerospace company, Blue Origin, to participate in NASA’s next lunar mission, codenamed “Project Artemis.” Sanders also tried to negotiate language in the bill that would give the federal government an equity stake in exchange for subsidies and aid for semiconductors.
The package has yet to pass the House before President Biden can sign it into law. On Tuesday, Schumer said: that he was “pretty sure we’re going to get a really good product on the president’s desk,” but it’s unclear how long that will last and whether the bill will change further.