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‘Everyone’s trying to row in the same direction’: Spy balloon saga tests bipartisan China committee

<i>AP
AP

By Annie Grayer and Melanie Zanona, CNN

After House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries announced his Democratic appointments to a select committee on the threat posed by China, the top Republican chairing the panel, GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, gave Jeffries some surprising feedback: his stamp of approval.

Gallagher felt like the roster was made up of serious members well-versed on the issue — a sentiment shared by Democrats, who were also pleased that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy did not appoint fire-breathers looking to score political points to the panel.

“(Jeffries) saw the members that Speaker McCarthy appointed, and saw that we’re not going to turn this into a partisan, bomb-throwing committee,” Gallagher told CNN. “Now, there may be meaningful disagreement on the issues. There are plenty of areas where Democrats and Republicans disagree on China, but overall, I think everyone’s trying to row in the same direction.”

The highest ranking Democrat on the panel, Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, told CNN, “I think we don’t have a choice” when it comes to striking a bipartisan tone. “Because the threats confronting us are so serious that only our adversaries would take pleasure in us being divided. And so I think we have to rise to the occasion, and with singularity of purpose, remember that we’re all called upon to defend our country, keep it safe, and counter any threats from any adversarial entities and move forward together.”

But a congressional Kumbaya may be easier said than done, and already, the recent Chinese spy balloon saga is testing the committee’s ability to work together. Some Democrats were turned off that Republicans immediately leapt to criticizing President Joe Biden as “weak” on China before Congress has even been briefed on the situation, with some GOP lawmakers even calling on him to resign over the incident.

“I think it’s unfortunate that for example Republicans have gone on television criticizing our military and our President for not shooting down the balloon sooner,” Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a member of the panel, told CNN. “I hope the committee will note devolve into the kind of partisanship that we saw on cable news this weekend.”

Members of the select committee are still hopeful they will be able to embody a bipartisan relationship as they investigate the strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party — a suddenly hot topic after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying over Montana, putting the issue of Chinese spy tactics front-and-center for the American public. And the decidedly civil tone of the new panel stands in stark contrast to the hyper-partisan investigations House Republicans have already embarked on and the tit-for-tat among the two parties about committee assignments.

The desire to put on a united front was on display over the weekend when Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi announced a joint statement — a rarity of this Congress — in response to the suspected Chinese spy balloon. Gallagher said separate statements likelier would have been spicier, but thought that it was more powerful to join forces — even if meant having to water down their response.

“I think America got a pretty good look at how this committee will attempt to do its work because of the joint statement,” GOP Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, a member of the panel, told CNN. “They came together in a strong bipartisan fashion early on. That has really helped with how we are all viewing or work, that it should be strongly bipartisan, that it should be comprehensive.”

Yet at least one member on the select committee was not impressed by Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi’s joint statement — a sign that not everyone is quite sold on their vision just yet.

“It was something that really set off some alarm bells for me in terms of how this is going to move,” committee member Democratic Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey, reacting to the joint statement. “What we’ve seen over the last couple of days is a situation where immediately the leadership of this select committee shoots from the hip before we even know anything about what’s going on with the balloon and says that it’s declarative in terms of a breakdown of diplomacy.”

Jeffries intentionally chose members who represented different ideological perspectives and geographic areas to serve on this committee, a source familiar with his thinking told CNN. Jeffries even selected Democratic Rep. Shontel Brown of Ohio, who voted against the initial resolution establishing the committee and chose Kim knowing he would bring a unique perspective. The minority leader also consulted with the top Democrat on House Foreign Affairs, Gregory Meeks of New York, in making his selections, as the two panels will have some overlap.

Krishnamoorthi described the Democrats appointed to the select committee, in a statement to CNN, as bringing “a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise to the table, but also (representing) a diverse array of backgrounds and values that will help enrich the work we do in addressing our nation’s long-term competitiveness with the CCP.”

Some Democrats are also fearful that the panel’s work may fuel anti-Asian rhetoric. Gallagher, cognizant of those concerns, says that is why he requested to edit the panel’s official name to include the “Chinese Communist Party,” in order to draw a distinction between the regime and the people, and is also vowing to hold hearings on human rights abuses.

And while Gallagher said he won’t dial down his criticism of the White House’s posture toward China when he believes it’s warranted, he also said he won’t bash Biden to score political points.

“I’m not going to try to put (Krishnamoorthi) in an awkward spot with respect to the Biden administration,” he said. “These areas where we disagree, I think we can confront them in a serious way without descending to name calling or third grade type behavior.”

The House GOP at large has also sought to strike a more unifying tone on the issue. House Republicans had initially weighed passing a resolution to directly criticize Biden over his handling of the Chinese spy balloon, but now leadership is looking to move a resolution that would condemn China more broadly in a bid to win bipartisan support.

McCarthy, who has long viewed a select committee on China as a top priority and vowed to visit Taiwan at some point as speaker, has also personally informed Jeffries and Gallagher that he wants the select panel’s effort to be bipartisan.

“I think our greatest strength is when we speak with one voice on China,” McCarthy told reporters Monday night.

Bipartisan plans for hearings, travel and annual report

The spy balloon fallout has reinforced a belief among members on the select committee that their shared threat is coming from across the ocean — not across the aisle. In interviews with a number of members on the panel, themes for the wide-ranging goals of their work emerged, including focusing on national security and military interests as well as economic competitiveness.

“This brazen violation of international law and US airspace brought home this threat to the American people, in a way that may not have resonated with the American people as much before,” Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky on the select committee, said of the spy balloon saga. “It definitely reinforced the reality that this affects American people’s day to day lives.”

While Republicans have unilateral subpoena power, Gallagher told CNN he wants bipartisan buy-in on as much of its work as possible, and Democrats will also get to call their own witnesses for hearings, which is standard practice. Republicans and Democrats on the committee will privately meet for the first time on Wednesday, but Gallagher hopes to get the panel officially organized — and potentially ready to start holding hearings — the week of February 27.

“Chairman Gallagher and I have tried to work on different issues and he’s been very forthcoming and candid about how we want to structure the committee and move forward,” Krishnamoorthi told CNN. “I’m really looking forward to working with him and the entire committee. I think that both the Speaker and Leader tried to select folks who are serious and are willing to work hard on the issues confronting us.”

Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan, who often commutes with Gallagher from the Midwest to Washington, DC, and suggested they share notes on the airplane, framed the select committee’s work in the context of the political climate of this Congress.

“You’ve got a new Republican majority with a Democratic administration. We know that we’re heading into a presidential election year. Certainly, you’ve had a lot of the Republican conference that has not served in the majority and are eager to pack some punches,” Stevens, who said she wants to bring her focus on the industrial Midwest to her work on this panel, told CNN.

“But I have found that during my time in Congress when you’re talking about tech innovation, technology competitiveness, and this idea of how we reclaim our manufacturing agenda, that is what brings people together and that’s what you’re going to see take place in many respects on this committee,” she added.

Johnson told CNN, “it’s the intention of the committee that we do as much as we can on a bipartisan basis. This is not a partisan issue. I think you saw a wide number of Republicans celebrate Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan some number of months ago. We have a tendency to view almost everything as a partisan cudgel in Washington, DC, but China has largely evaded that kind of false dichotomy.”

To complete its work of issuing an annual report, Gallagher told CNN he anticipates the panel will go on foreign trips as a group, and will hold a number of hearings, which could cover the theft of intellectual property, unfair trade practices and human rights abuses.

“We anticipate that the select committee will be an active visitor to Taiwan,” Barr told CNN. Congressional delegations typically do not reveal trips in advance for security reasons, but Barr added that such trips “need to be sensitive about timing, about the manner in which those visits are conducted.”

While the select committee does not have legislative jurisdiction, many of its members view its work as a continuation of the bipartisan bill from last year that invested more than $200 billion over the next five years to help the US regain a leading position in semiconductor chip manufacturing, and the launching pad for new legislative goals.

“What we need is a focus on our economic security, and our national security through strength and strategy,” Khanna told CNN. “But at the same time, having space for smart diplomatic engagement.”

Kim, a former State Department official who also serves on the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees, said he is so far not concerned about the panel’s work devolving into xenophobic rhetoric about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, but had issues with one member selected for the panel, GOP Rep. Michelle Steel of California, who played ads over the midterms that said her Democratic opponent, who was Taiwanese American, was “perfect for Communist China.”

“I don’t feel that much confidence just yet based off of some of these choices,” Kim said about Steel, one of the first Korean American women elected to Congress.

Steel campaign spokesperson Lance Trover said in a statement to CNN, “if anything, the events of the last week further underscore Michelle’s campaign to highlight the CCP spying on our country. Michelle is a First Generation American whose family fled communism, and she will never stop highlighting the economic theft, human rights abuses, and military threat China poses to America.”

More broadly, he does want this select committee to find its own lane, which could prove challenging given the overlap with a litany of other committees, and also not resort to provocative rhetoric.

“What I need to hear from this committee is what exactly are we going to do? What are we going to work on that isn’t just stepping on toes of other committees? What can we work on?” Kim posed to CNN. “And honestly, the thing that I hope is fair is right in the name, which says it’s about strategy, says it’s about strategic competition. And if that’s the case we should be a committee that looks at the big picture.”

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