Exclusive — Sen. Ron Johnson on Chuck Schumer’s China Plan: ‘It’s Not Too Late,’ ‘Let’s Try and Kill This Bill’

Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wis., questions Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 27, 2021, on the Biden administration's Afghanistan policy and plans to withdraw troops after two decades of war. (Photo by Susan Walsh / POOL / …
SUSAN WALSH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told Breitbart News in a lengthy exclusive interview on Tuesday that he is hopeful enough Republican senators will flip against a plan from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that the plan could sink when the Senate comes back from Memorial Day recess.

“We need them to speak loudly,” Johnson told Breitbart News when asked what the public should be doing to help him and others fight the Schumer proposal. “Let’s try and kill this bill. Let’s not acquiesce to it. It’s not too late. It’s really not too late. It’s not too late. That’s my main message, it’s not too late, but you need to have your voices heard among the Republicans who voted for this thing.”

The bill, originally called the Endless Frontier Act but renamed to a new title the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, would spend tens of billions of dollars to help steer investment in research and technological innovation in the United States in the name of countering similar such investment by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. The price tag is now north of $200 billion, according to Johnson, and is not technically paid for as it would be entirely new spending. Other senators, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), have raised objections to the plan on the grounds it does not in their view do enough to stop Chinese Communist Party officials from stealing the very research the U.S. would be funding—as has been happening repeatedly in recent years as top officials from leading U.S. educational institutions like Harvard have been arrested for ties to the Chinese government.

Johnson led a group of rebel Republicans on the floor of the U.S. Senate last Thursday evening—when Schumer thought this bill would sail through the chamber after 18 Republican senators voted for a key manager’s amendment package on it—that instead derailed the progress on the bill and forced senators to stay in the chamber until well after midnight that night. After finally recessing around 3 a.m. Friday morning, Schumer’s Democrats came back Friday at 9 a.m. to try again—but instead, given the rising opposition from people like Johnson and his allies like Sens. Rubio, Mike Lee (R-UT), Rick Scott (R-FL), Rand Paul (R-KY), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), and others, Schumer backed down and delayed votes on the plan until after Memorial Day recess. The Senate returns next week, and another 60-vote threshold opportunity exists for Republicans to flip the fight around on this—and Johnson hopes that at least nine of the 18 Republicans who votes for the last 60-vote threshold on this change their minds and back out on the plan.

“In delaying it we agreed we wouldn’t object to anything else on Tuesday. So if they have 10 Republican votes, this will pass,” Johnson told Breitbart News in a half hour long phone interview on Tuesday. “Right now, all those senators voted for cloture so they could move on to final passage. There’s another cloture vote coming up, so they could decide to change. There’s nothing wrong with what. I’ve sometimes voted for cloture on something hoping the amendment process would be good and might help improve a bill that I end up not supporting. There’s nothing wrong with voting for cloture and against final passage, so that’s why we need to try to get at least nine Republican senators to reverse course.”

Johnson told Breitbart News he is hoping the GOP base across America engages and pressures their GOP senators who previously voted to advance this measure change their minds and go back against it.

“If you have a senator, a Republican senator who voted for cloture on this thing and it looks like they’re going to pass this, take a look at the bill and provide feedback to that Republican senator and ask if you really think this is worth over a quarter trillion dollars over the next five years,” Johnson said. “Do you think this is going to work? Or is this another spending boondoggle? By the way, those semiconductor plants are up in New York. Isn’t that a shock? Figure out what’s in this thing, and figure out where is all this spending going to go? I would argue going to the universities, politically, when is the last time any university has been friendly politically to the conservative cause? We’re literally going to funnel double the National Science Foundation—which has been a laughingstock—what is it the National Science Foundation funds? There’s plenty of good stuff the National Science Foundation does fund and there are some things where there might actually be a legitimate purpose for some of this stuff. But, they were always the butt of Tom Coburn’s waste book, right? We’re doubling their budget. Why would we do that? So I’d like to appeal to your conservative readers and just really have them start asking the question—don’t look at the title of the bill, like the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,’ it didn’t protect patients and it wasn’t affordable. So don’t look at this one, oh yeah this is the China bill. It’s not going to work. It’s another quarter of a trillion dollars in massive spending that’s going to further your children’s and your grandchildren’s mortgages. Why are Republicans signing up for this? My guess is because they’re getting something for their states out of it. Or maybe their own egos, I’ve seen that happen in the past. ‘We’ve got a bill, we’ve got to pass this bill!’ I don’t think conservative industrial policy is going to be any better than liberal or Chinese industrial policy.”

Those 18 Republicans who voted for the last measure on this were: Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Susan Collins (R-ME), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Steve Daines (R-MT), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Jim Risch (R-ID), Mitt Romney (R-UT), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Ben Sasse (R-NE), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Todd Young (R-IN).

“The China bill—I’m hoping it’s not a foregone conclusion, we’ve got four days and the weekend to try to expose what’s in that bill,” Johnson told Breitbart News. “That’s really what we’re trying to do, is delay. This is approaching a quarter of a trillion dollars. And it’s—we’ve got 18 of our colleagues who are willing to just go along with a Schumer priority and spend more money? It blows me away. I’m truly not convinced that giving federal agencies more money to give grants to universities is going to in any way, shape, or form effectively combat China.”

Schumer’s Endless Frontier Act plan had been progressing along essentially unscathed and uncriticized for quite some time, garnering bipartisan support from leftist Democrats and conservative Republicans—and everyone in between—to the point it looked unstoppable. Then, Rubio dropped the hammer on it ripping the plan in an exclusive interview with Breitbart News in Miami, Florida, in Breitbart’s On The Hill video series. As Rubio’s interview clip popped, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) appeared on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight last Tuesday evening to shred the Schumer plan as “an orgy of spending,” a more colorful than usual attack on the bill from the senator known for catchy soundbites.

But even before those public shots started emerging show cracks in Schumer’s seemingly impenetrable armor, Johnson told Breitbart News that Republican opposition to the proposal began building in private lunches with GOP senators where he and others were raising concerns with the bill. At a Wednesday steering committee lunch a couple weeks ago, Johnson said, he implored his GOP colleagues to fight back against this on several fronts.

“So, the kind of the story on that in the conference really starts two Wednesday lunches ago and that’s the Steering Committee lunch,” Johnson told Breitbart News. “Tuesday is leadership lunch, and all the members of leadership have pitches to make and there’s not a whole lot of discussion but a little bit. On Wednesday, it’s really open to discussion and debate. People get up and give their viewpoints. So two Wednesdays ago we started debate on this China bill internally, and there are obviously advocates for it. Todd Young is a cosponsor with Schumer. And obviously Sen. Cornyn, whose $50 billion semiconductor bill was included in the NDAA which is a bill you have to pass and so that got included in there and it got passed. So there are obviously advocates for this bill, but there are a number of us pretty vocally opposed. I just can tell you my primary point in opposing it two Wednesdays ago is my perspective on these things is really coming from the private sector where I remember spending an entire day in a very detailed budget meeting to get a $5 million capital expenditure in business. Then, spending a couple months on getting an agreement on a $10-20 million supply agreement. Then, spending a couple years on the sale of my business. That’s the kind of scrutiny we put forward in any type of capital investment decision. It’s the same type we have on China, where you have millions of individual purchasing decisions and you scrutinize whenever you want to allocate capital. That’s why we have a better economy than China. They’ve got a command economy. Why would we think we could out-China China with a command economy and then oh by the way why in the world would we acquiesce and just give Schumer his priorities? Politically, it makes no sense.”

The background in the lead-up to that first Wednesday lunch a couple weeks ago is that there is a hunger by many Republican senators, Johnson said, to fight harder on key fiscal battles with President Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress. In particular, Johnson is keen on an idea he has been pushing—encapsulated in a recent Wall Street Journal article—that Republicans should force Democrats and the Biden administration to repurpose unspent coronavirus relief funds before allocating any new spending on anything else.

“Then, oh, by the way, this rapidly increases costs another quarter of a trillion dollars and it’s unpaid for—I’ve been advocating for quite some time, and I’m glad to see the Wall Street Journal and others coming out for this, but on things like the $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill the thing I got was we have now $700 to $800 billion worth of spending in the out years in the relief bill,” Johnson said. “That’s $720 billion that it ought to be the conference position that we don’t agree to any new spending on anything outside the normal budget that isn’t paid for out of that fund where we just repurpose that out-year spending and reapply it.”

Johnson also noted that in the lead-up to that first lunch, GOP senators earlier this year drew a line in the sand against bringing earmarks back. It’s an important principled stand against corruption, Johnson said, because the House GOP conference on the other side of Capitol Hill had already caved and voted to bring back earmarks.

“Remember we had our conference meeting—where the House had actually voted to start earmarks again, in the House conference—this is where Mike Lee and others on the Steering Committee did a really good job of leading our effort to completely oppose the Republicans in the Senate doing that even though there was a great deal of sympathy for bringing back the earmarking process,” Johnson said. “We did such an effective job shutting that thing down that we didn’t even bring that thing to a vote—we just left that rule in place that we’re opposed to earmarks, but we importantly added I guess it’s a resolution that for any further increase in the debt ceiling we’re going to demand something in exchange for it.”

So the Senate GOP standing firm against earmarks—in no small part thanks to the Steering Committee—was huge for conservatives, and came with an added bonus for the right: a united GOP conference position on the debt ceiling battle looming in September. Republicans intend to demand concessions from the Democrats and Biden in exchange for any future debt ceiling increase. Exactly what that concession will be is as of yet unclear, but Johnson has an idea he’s been pushing called the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act—a proposal from 2019 originally pushed by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) that would fund the government at the same levels as the previous year if a new spending bill does not pass—and also mentioned that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has floated adding a proposal from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) called the Full Faith and Credit Act which would force the federal government to make payments on its debt in a way it has not been doing. Whatever the “fiscal control,” as Johnson calls it, levied upon Biden and the Democrats, Johnson said just a few weeks ago the GOP was unified on this front that the Democrats would not get Biden a debt ceiling increase without a serious concession.

“That’s the position of our conference, and it hasn’t gotten much press and play,” Johnson said. “We didn’t even vote on it, we just drew that by acclamation. That’s our conference position, so why a week or two later when we’re debating the China bill are we willing to just spend like Democrats?”

So at the second Steering Committee lunch on the China bill this past week, Johnson said, things intensified to the point Johnson thought it was settled: Republicans would block Schumer’s China bill.

“So that’s kind of the background that happened in the first lunch, then in last week’s lunch it continued where I’m not going to tell you what other senators say but there was one senator who was pretty upset that the deal he had done with the chairman of the committee on which he serves wasn’t included at all,” Johnson said. “That particular senator was opposed to providing cloture. I got up and continued to make my points about how I don’t think this will be effective in countering China, and why would we want to give Chuck Schumer this win? My other point was why would we want to conclude this bill on Friday before Memorial Day only to have Chuck Schumer come back the following Monday and throw at us some other nasty piece of legislation like election reform or the Green New Deal or pick your nasty legislation out of the Democrat grab bag here? Why not at a minimum, even if we decide to give this thing cloture, and it passes—why don’t we drag this out for a long time? My personal preference would be to drag this out until November of 2022. I left that lunch on Wednesday thinking that was the conference position, that we weren’t going to provide cloture.”

But, instead, after a shaky start to Thursday’s proceedings in the Senate on the bill—Schumer had to hold a vote open for hours—Schumer ended up getting 18 GOP senators to back his plan. That set Johnson off, and the Wisconsin Republican went to work on a plan to crash the Democrat party.

“That’s why I was really surprised and not happy—let’s put it that way—I was not happy that on Thursday all of a sudden 18 of our members voted to pass the finance section of this thing, over 900 pages that just got added on,” Johnson said. “Then, all of a sudden we’re voting for cloture? So I went back to my office and I just thought about it and I said you know securing our border used to be bipartisan. I had my amendment vote, completely partisan vote even though in 2006 you had Schumer and Biden and Obama and Clinton and Carper—all these Democrats—vote for that. I said let’s just throw a hand grenade into the negotiators, the manager’s package on this, and I’m going to object. Until you include securing the border, I’m going to object to the manager’s package. I don’t know what happened in the working on these matters, and we didn’t get called back in until about 11 o’clock at night. During that time period, I was reaching out to other senators and you know the ones I reached out to because they joined the effort—Rick Scott, Mike Lee, Coach Tuberville, Cynthia Lummis—we got together and said we would use our full speaking time and delay this and so when I got up and objected I said listen we just got this manager’s package and it’s like 37 amendments. I know what my amendment says, but I don’t know what else is in there and they just want us to agree to via unanimous consent sign off on this package? Not going to happen. I asked a very reasonable question which was to recess for three hours and give us time to look at this manager’s package. Cantwell didn’t agree to that, so then Rick Scott got up and said we ought to give our constituents a chance to look at this as well and provide us feedback. Recess and give us that week, we’ll come back—in the end that’s what ended up happening, but at the time Maria Cantwell denied that as well. Then Mike Lee got up and put in the final objection. Then I started speaking, I spoke for almost 40 minutes on things like the border security and on things like amendments that should have been included in the package, that for sure should have been included.”

After that, Johnson noted, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) came to the team’s aid and joined in the fight and then that ended the night as the Democrats abandoned the chamber leaving no quorum in place to continue proceedings.

“Then Rand Paul spoke, and he joined the effort by the way, and Rand Paul noticed there wasn’t a quorum and he noted the absence of a quorum and the Democrats didn’t want to provide a presiding officer and so they recessed until we came back at 9 o’clock and Schumer said we’re going to stay here until we pass this bill but then I think Schumer realized we’re down too so we’re going to use up every hour of our time which would have taken us well into I think probably Saturday,” Johnson said. “People were smelling the jet fumes so they called it off for now.”

Johnson thinks this battle is way bigger than just this bill. He is trying to still kill this bill, quite clearly, but is hopeful this new fighting spirit is contagious and spreads to other legislative battles like the upcoming infrastructure and debt ceiling and spending bill battles.

“First of all, I think you’re right—I think it’s way bigger than this,” Johnson said. “It’s way bigger than one bill. But I’m not giving up on this bill. We’ve got four days and the weekend to figure out what’s so attractive in this bill to 18 Republican senators who would give Chuck Schumer a huge win. I know the name of the bill is good, countering China, but I don’t believe this is going to be effective at that at all. It’s just going to be funneling more money into universities and education, which by the way who do you think is graduating out of our engineering courses? It’s not our kids. We’re educating the scientists of China.”

Johnson was also particularly critical of Senate GOP leadership on this matter, saying without naming anyone in particular that if they were more engaged here then maybe Schumer would be about to lose a major fight.

“We need our leadership embracing this as well, and obviously on the China bill we didn’t have it,” Johnson said. “It’s not too late for leadership to join this effort. This is principled opposition. This isn’t what the Democrats do, which is just object to object or obstruct to obstruct. We have principled problems with this legislation. We want time to debate it. The reason we’re mortgaging our kids’ future is there never is time for this debate. Just like the $1.9 trillion bill, I had planned—it was my game plan, I had 20 something Republican senators signed up to speak in shifts where we could have extended that vote-a-rama on the floor for literally weeks. It would have required some Republicans missing votes, and who knows at what in point time the Democrats would change the rules in the Senate on budget reconciliation. We should have done that, and we didn’t. The reason we didn’t is we didn’t have leadership support for doing it. We need leadership on board with what we’re trying to do. But, again, this is principled opposition. New spending bills—if we think it’s good spending, like on infrastructure, just repurpose that $720 billion. Just don’t vote for this thing and vote for cloture so they can pass thing before people even have time to read it. That’s 2,200 pages. Give me a break. Not only just having people read it, more important is having the public and the press be able to understand what’s in it so the public can provide feedback instead of these 100 geniuses in the United States Senate—like, are we going to make all these decisions for our country? I’d argue we’re not the best people to be doing a lot of this stuff.”

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