When House Republicans and Democrats joined together last month to create a new committee focused on U.S. competition with China, supporters of the project expressed confidence it could show Beijing that American leaders weren’t hopelessly divided along partisan lines.
All it took was a single balloon to deflate that lofty idea.
Last week, the suspected Chinese spy craft began floating across the U.S. at an altitude of 60,000 feet, just days after the House’s new China committee was officially organized.
On Thursday, Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL)—the panel’s chairman and ranking member, respectively—issued a joint statement criticizing the Chinese Communist Party government for violating U.S. sovereignty and warning that “the CCP threat is not confined to distant shores.”
But as the balloon drifted, and President Joe Biden held off on downing it, many Republicans saw an easy target instead of an opportunity for bipartisan solidarity.
Top Republicans and China hawks claimed the incursion proved Biden’s weakness in the face of Beijing. Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer suggested, without evidence, that the balloon carried “bioweapons” from “Wuhan.”
Even Gallagher, who is respected on the Democratic side, made the rounds in conservative media to castigate Biden for not shooting down the balloon earlier. He said his administration was allowing a threatening presence to “lazily drift over America” and compared it to someone inviting a burglar inside their home, showing him their valuables, and then “politely asking him to leave.”
By the time the balloon dropped languidly into the ocean off the Carolina coast on Saturday—felled by a F-22 fighter jet and perhaps a few chest-thumping tweets from politicians—the opportunity that the select committee had presented just days earlier had seemed to diminish.
“I had my reservations before this incident,” said Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ), a member of the committee. “But my reservations are even stronger, in terms of whether this will yield fruitful conversations or if it’s going to become this crucible for provocation.”
Kim told The Daily Beast he was taken aback by some of the “immediate escalatory and frankly, at times, hysterical language” that Republicans were pushing out.
“It feels this is more of an exercise in trying to use these legitimate national security challenges we have to inflame politics as well as inflame the situation,” he said.
Another Democrat on the panel, Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), said he was still optimistic about the “generational opportunity” the committee presents, but found himself disappointed by “the tenor of the response from the GOP.”
Instead of showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping the unity that lawmakers had hoped, Auchincloss said Republicans had shown Xi partisanship. “That strengthens his hand at a time when it was weak,” he said.
Krishnamoorthi, the panel’s ranking Democrat, argued that Democrats and Republicans’ shared viewpoint on China “far outweighs any of our disagreements.”
“We cannot be divided in our response as an American people and as a Congress,” he told The Daily Beast. “Our adversaries would want those divisions. We have to rise to the occasion and act in a bipartisan fashion.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), another Democrat on the panel who expressed broad confidence in the possibility of bipartisan work, said it doesn’t help that Republicans “go on television and say that the president had a dereliction of duty when the president was simply following what the military suggested.”
In a new era of divided government, the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party is being scrutinized as a test of whether the two parties can work together at all. There are China hawks on both sides of the aisle. Legislation like the CHIPS Act passed last year with bipartisan support with the explicit aim of increasing the U.S. ability to compete directly with China in high-tech manufacturing.
And lawmakers voted on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis—365-65—to establish the select committee in the first place.
On Monday, Republican members on the panel were insistent they’re ready to get to work—including on a bipartisan basis—and that the balloon is right up their alley.
Gallagher said while some other established committees might have jurisdiction over issues like the spy balloon, he’s hoping the panel can find ways to “elevate it, put it in a geostrategic context and also use the incident to illustrate something fundamental about the Chinese Communist Party.”
But even with bipartisan ambitions in mind, those same Republican lawmakers weren’t shy about continuing to criticize the administration for its response.
Gallagher argued the administration is sending mixed messages, saying that at first messaging would “downplay” the balloon, but then spun to be a moment of “genius” as administration officials cast the downing of the balloon as an opportunity to gain valuable intelligence.
“We have a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.
Rep. Carlos Giménez (R-FL), another member of the panel, said the balloon should have been shot down immediately upon entering U.S. airspace.
“Because it sends a very clear signal that we protect our U.S. airspace. Doing otherwise, actually, I think is an embarrassment to the United States,” he said. “It also is a signal to the Communist Chinese party of what our intentions are, how we react to something like that.”
Multiple Republicans, like Giménez, suggested the balloon was a sort of test for the U.S. government to see how the administration and national security officials would react, or a grandstand to show China’s capabilities in comparison to the U.S.
Others suggested it could be a means of toying with top U.S. officials; Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was slated to visit Beijing as well as Taiwan this week. His trip has now been postponed—though Blinken says he still intends to visit the region.
“It’s hard to know exactly what the motivation of the CCP is. Maybe they were showing off for others. Maybe they thought that the swagger would help them as they work to build stronger partnerships in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD), a committee member. “Maybe they were testing American capabilities.”
“But,” Johnson later added, “I would tell you that they gained a lot more information than just whatever they were taking pictures of.”
Some national security experts have downplayed the importance of the balloon incident, at least until more is known about the craft and what Beijing may have intended to do with it. Satellites, after all, constantly collect detailed imaging of land, and both the U.S. and China already rely heavily on them.
What disappointed Democrats the most was less Republican criticism of Biden, but that the rhetoric became overheated in a matter of days, and before lawmakers were briefed on the incident.
Kim, a former National Security Council official under President Barack Obama, said he respects Gallagher and has known him for a decade. But Kim was disappointed that “days after us fully standing up this committee,” Gallagher’s “first instinct” was “to lash out without knowing the full details.”
There’s also a concern that the select committee might be reactive to geopolitical flare-ups like the balloon—which happen frequently between the U.S. and China—instead of focusing on big-picture themes, like industrial modernization, that might invite more bipartisan cooperation.
Kim likened it to “playing Whac-A-Mole with every issue that comes up with China.”
Krishnamoorthi said he wants to learn more about what happened with the balloon, and suggested the committee would have to strike a balance. “We probably need to look at the big picture issues while at the same time keeping an eye on the episodes in our relationship that help to illustrate the different threats,” he said.
Democrats acknowledged that partisanship will be a major factor in the committee’s operations; Krishnamoorthi said it’s up to members of both parties to be careful about their rhetoric and conduct to keep things productive.
In that event, for some members, the sooner the balloon’s shadow drifts from Capitol Hill, the better.
“I would be disappointed,” Auchincloss said, “if we spent the first month talking about the balloon.”
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