Congressional Republicans are anxious to use new Covid-19 lab leak reports to lash out at the ruling Chinese Communist Party and paint President Joe Biden’s administration as soft on Beijing.
But they have reached little consensus on how exactly to do that.
Some GOP lawmakers hope a reported new assessment from the Energy Department, concluding that the so-called lab leak theory is the most likely explanation for Covid’s origin will give new life to legislation that stalled last year — including bills to declassify intelligence about the pandemic, set up a 9/11-style nonpartisan commission to study the virus’ beginnings, and restrict data-sharing with Chinese scientists.
Others are calling for the White House to hold classified briefings on what they knew about Covid-19’s origins, when they knew it, and what led to the latest agency assessment. And still more hope to use the lab leak assessment as momentum for sanctions and investment restrictions on the world’s second-largest economy.
The spectrum of responses played out on Tuesday across nearly a dozen hearings and legislation markups aimed at deterring what GOP lawmakers say is increasingly aggressive behavior from China that the Biden administration has not effectively addressed.
The Covid news “reinforces the vigilance we’re going to have to have vis a vis China on just about every front,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.). “It takes a little time to get momentum, but you’re going to see a lot of fresh China-countering policies from this Congress.”
The U.S. government has not reached a consensus on how the coronavirus pandemic started. But The Wall Street Journal’s weekend report that the Energy Department made a “low confidence” endorsement of the lab leak theory provided fresh ammunition for those who have long accused the federal government of misleading the public about Covid-19, potentially sowing more distrust about the threat the virus still poses.
But even as some Republicans argued the Energy Department news vindicates the lab leak theory they’ve promoted for years, they warned against focusing on the past at the expense of current threats.
“Most certainly, we can have additional hearings, but I think there are other priorities right now,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told POLITICO. “We’ve got a war in Europe right now. We’ve got a new peer competitor in China right now that is growing faster than we are in terms of military capabilities. We’ve got challenges within our own country in terms of a huge debt that we really have to address. So, when we look at the pandemic and talk about assigning blame, I think most of us have already assigned it.”
Going forward, Republicans say they hope to cobble together a China-Covid strategy that includes both fact-finding missions and new policies to counter threats in the U.S. and abroad.
“We should protest that China tried to cover this up, because that delayed our ability to respond,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the Senate’s top Republican appropriator and member of the Intelligence Committee, told POLITICO. “We also need to take a look at the kind of research that was being done at that lab, and whether it did receive American tax dollars to support it, which is an open question right now.”
The GOP policymaking, however, got off to a sputtering start on Tuesday. The House Financial Services Committee advanced 10 bipartisan bills, but skirted any meaningful new restrictions on the Chinese economy. The House Foreign Affairs Committee also advanced a handful of bipartisan messaging bills, while clashing over a proposed ban for the Chinese social media app TikTok.
And in the House Science Committee, Republicans broke with their committee chair on Tuesday over what kind of restrictions to impose on Chinese scientists working in the U.S. and Chinese collaborations with American scientists overseas.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called for curbs on what information U.S. universities share with China, while freshman Rep. Rich McCormick (R-Ga.) pushed for ramped-up surveillance of Chinese students and STEM researchers who work in the United States.
Federal law enforcement “should probably be keeping a pretty close eye on” them, he said. “Because there’s significant links back to the place where they come from, including the family that remains in place.”
Chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) stopped short of endorsing those moves, though he agreed that Beijing has made efforts “to steal the results of our research and innovations — whether that’s through cyberattacks, forced intellectual property acquisition or malicious recruitment initiatives like the Thousand Talents Program,” which aims to lure academic talent to China from other countries.
Several Republicans said the DOE assessment has revived the caucus’ interest in bills of theirs that failed to advance last year.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said the Energy Department report could be a “breakthrough” for his legislation to declassify intelligence around the origin of Covid.
“I’m guessing this is going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back on this issue,” he said. “It’s going to cascade.”
Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) was similarly confident Tuesday that the revelation would lend momentum to his bill to create a 9/11-style, nonpartisan commission to study Covid’s origin — a provision that was left out of the spending bill that passed in December — though he noted that conversations are at the staff level and haven’t yet progressed to members.
Several lawmakers told POLITICO they need more information before they can decide how best to proceed when it comes to U.S.-China policy.
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), who sits on the Oversight subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Tuesday that he’s requested a classified briefing from the Energy Department and has yet to receive a response.
“I don’t think we’ve been given a straight story,” he said. “So obviously, when they came up with this observation, I wanted more information.”
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