SOUTH BEND – Sen. Todd Young prevailed over Senate tribalism – Red Tribe vs. Blue Tribe – to win bipartisan passage of legislation to compete with China on scientific innovation and production of microchips vital for everything from missile defense systems to new cars and smartphones.

The Indiana Republican was co-author of the bill with Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democratic majority leader. Passage came after Young’s persistent efforts to persuade a sufficient number of fellow Republicans that it was good for America, not just a political plus for President Joe Biden, and to convince Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, not to block the vote.

Seventeen Republicans voted for the $280 billion “Chips and Science Act,” approved 64-33. It provides $52 billion to microchip manufacturers to incentivize production in America, lessening reliance on foreign production that was interrupted during the pandemic and supply-chain woes. The shortage has plagued the auto industry.

Fear has grown that China and other countries with their huge subsidies for science development, including in the military field, could leave this nation vulnerable.

Young said after passage that the bipartisan majority was “persuaded by the national security proposition. And frankly, they came to understand that this was critical to winning the 21st Century, ensuring that our values win the day and not those of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Then, after the big Senate vote, House Republican leaders had a different plea: “Win one for the Commies.” They didn’t say it just that way, of course, but their sudden, fiery opposition to this competition with China could be characterized as “Better a win for Xi Jinping than a win for Joe Biden.” It was back again to the tribal politics.

The change came, bringing a surprising switch of many House Republicans from expected support to opposition. Why? Republican leaders threw a fit over Sen. Joe Manchin announcing agreement with Schumer on a reconciliation agreement that could pass on a party-line vote, avoiding a filibuster. The agreement was for major initiatives in fighting global warming, promoting new energy, cutting prescription drug costs, expanding health insurance availability and reducing the deficit.

All of those initiatives, parts of Biden’s stalled “Build Back Better” program, are popular. If they passed, it would be a victory for Biden, perhaps improving his sagging approval ratings and enabling Democrats to do better in the mild-term elections.

McConnell was furious. He had agreed not to block the bill on competition with China after it appeared that Democrats had given up on seeking passage of a reconciliation bill with Biden initiatives and corporate taxes. He had refused earlier to let the China competition bill come to a vote as long as Democrats still planned a reconciliation attempt. Why China and reconciliation ever got linked gets back to tribal warfare.

The Manchin-Schumer agreement was announced just hours after the bill on competition with China passed. Angry House Republican leaders urged their members to vote against the China competition as a payback. Some who had been expected to vote for the bill wouldn’t do so. But two dozen Republicans still supported it as it passed and went on for signature into law by Biden.

McConnell’s payback in the Senate included defeat of a bill to provide expanded health care for veterans suffering illness from toxic burn pits. How care for veterans became linked with competing with China also involved the tribal strife. Young, in retaining tribal status, voted against the bill, although he and other Republicans blocking cloture insisted it was due to a recently discovered funding flaw.

Perceived pettiness in stalling care for veterans was so harmful to the Red Tribe that Senate Republicans quickly relented. The Senate, with the tribes evenly divided, moves or stalls in mysterious ways. It finally moved to pass the bill Young had for so long sought to get serious about competition with China. 

Colwell is a columnist for the South Bend Tribune.