Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) crossed party lines on Thursday to back a GOP-led measure that would allow civil suits against the government of the People’s Republic of China over its handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Durbin, who serves as his party’s minority whip in the United States Senate, was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the Civil Justice for Victims of COVID Act on Thursday when it was brought up for a vote in the chamber’s Judiciary Committee. Due to the senator’s support, the measure, which was already likely to pass, now has bipartisan credibility, especially given Durbin’s status as a party leader.
If put into effect, the bill would strip China of its sovereign immunity status, a legal doctrine preventing foreign nations from being subject to civil charges. As such, the measure grants federal courts jurisdiction to hear lawsuits brought against Beijing claiming the communist power “caused or substantially contributed” to the spread of the coronavirus within the U.S. It further authorizes federal courts to seize Chinese assets held within the U.S.
The act was introduced earlier this month by Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) and a number of other senators as part of a broader GOP-led effort to hold China accountable for what some argue was a negligent response to the initial coronavirus outbreak within its borders. Many now believe that China knew about the virus before the official date, December 31, 2019, upon which it notified the World Health Organization regarding the outbreak. Recently, in fact, evidence has emerged that coronavirus symptoms were displayed by individuals in the Chinese city of Wuhan as early as late-November 2019.
“China must be held accountable for its failure to contain COVID-19,” Sen. Mike Rounds (D-SD), one of the bill’s sponsors, said upon its introduction, adding that “if China would have been transparent from the start, many more lives would have been saved in all parts of the world.”
The act is modeled after legislation from 2016 allowing individuals to bring civil suits against a foreign state for injury, death, or property damage that resulted from an act of international terrorism or was committed by a designated terrorist organization. That 2016 measure received widespread bipartisan support but was only implemented after Congress overrode a veto by then-President Barack Obama.
It is unclear, though, if the GOP-led measure to hold China accountable will elicit the same level of bipartisan support, either in the Senate or the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. Although Durbin’s vote seems to indicate the potential exists, it is also notable that nine other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee opposed the measure on Thursday. Some of the votes against it came from high-profile figures within the Democrat-camp, including Sens. Cory Booker (NJ), Kamala Harris (CA), and Chris Coons (DE).
Durbin’s office did not return requests for comment on this story.