Plans in Congress on China and TikTok Face Hurdles After Spy Balloon Furor

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“We’ve had a whack-a-mole approach on foreign technology that poses a national security risk,” Mr. Warner said in an interview, bemoaning that TikTok was only the latest in a long line of foreign data firms, like the Chinese telecom giant Huawei and the Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab, to be targeted by Congress. “We need an approach that is constitutionally defensible.”

There is a similar flurry of activity among Republican and Democratic lawmakers proposing bans on Chinese purchases of farmland  in sensitive areas. But lawmakers remain split over how broad such a ban should be, whether agents of other adversary nations ought also to be subject to the prohibition, and whether Congress ought to update the whole process of reviewing foreign investment transactions, by including the Agriculture Department in the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency group.

“It’s actually kind of a more fraught issue than you would imagine,” Mr. Gallagher said.

Lawmakers in both parties who want to put forth legislation to limit U.S. goods and capital from reaching Chinese markets are also facing challenges. The Biden administration has already started to take unilateral action on the issue, and further steps could box lawmakers out. Even if Congress can stake out a role for itself, it is not entirely clear which committee would take the lead on a matter that straddles a number of areas of jurisdiction.  

Even before the balloon incident, existential policy differences between Republicans and Democrats, particularly around spending, made for slim odds that Congress could achieve sweeping legislative breakthroughs regarding China. Architects of last year’s law were dour about the prospect of the current Congress attempting anything on a similar scale.

“The chances of us passing another major, comprehensive bill are not high,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the lead Republican on the CHIPS effort, who noted that with the slim G.O.P. majority in the House, it would be difficult to pass a costly investment bill.

G.O.P. lawmakers have been demanding cuts to the federal budget, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, has indicated that even military spending might be on the chopping block. Though no one has specifically advocated cutting programs related to countering China, that has some lawmakers nervous, particularly since certain recent ventures Congress created to beef up security assistance to Taiwan have already failed to secure funding at their intended levels.

That backdrop could complicate even bipartisan ventures seeking to authorize new programs to counter China diplomatically and militarily, such as a proposal in the works from Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator James Risch of Idaho, the top Republican, to step up foreign aid and military assistance to American allies in Beijing’s sphere of influence.

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