Richmond Times-Dispatch: Virginia U.S. House Democrats cheer passage of COMPETES Act with money for domestic chip manufacturing

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

Legislation to revive the domestic manufacturing of semiconductor chips passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday, giving hope for the return of an industry that once powered jobs and the economy in the Richmond area before departing for Asia during the Great Recession.

Both the COMPETES Act and the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which the Senate passed in June, would provide $52 billion to help build eight to 10 new semiconductor fabrication plants in such places as eastern Henrico County, which lost a major chip manufacturer, Qimonda, after it filed for bankruptcy during the recession and moved out of the U.S.

“The real focus is bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, in an interview Friday at her congressional office.

The 222-210 vote fell almost entirely on partisan lines — only one Republican supported it and one Democrat opposed it — eight months after the U.S. Senate adopted a bipartisan bill supported by 18 Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The outcome was the same in Virginia’s congressional delegation, with all seven Democrats voting for the COMPETES Act and all four Republicans opposing it.

“The House Republicans have sort of withdrawn from helping us with anything,” said Rep. Don McEachin, D-4th, who lives in South Richmond and represents a broad swath of the region.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, opposed the act, which he derided as “toothless legislation” that fails to demand accountability for China’s role in the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is not a serious attempt at confronting China,” he said.

However, Wittman, who would represent parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties as well as part of Hanover if re-elected in a newly drawn congressional district, said he “remains committed to advancing semiconductor chip manufacturing in Virginia.”

“Virginia is already a leader in semiconductor chip manufacturing and is prepared to further assist in decreasing American reliance on foreign manufacturing,” he said.

Spanberger, who currently represents parts of Henrico and Chesterfield, faulted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for waiting too long on a crucial issue for national security and the supply chain for domestic manufacturers.

Now, she said, the House will have to negotiate a final bill with the Senate before it reaches President Joe Biden for signature.

“The Democratic House leadership has picked a fight now on a piece of legislation that should have been on the president’s desk a few months ago,” Spanberger said in the interview.

In a statement released after the vote, she called the delay “unacceptable” and said the House Democratic leadership had chosen to “put this issue on the back burner.”

The two-term congresswoman is seeking re-election in a newly drawn district that leans Democratic but supported Republican Glenn Youngkin in his successful campaign for governor last year. She has won twice in a battleground district that favored Republicans, in part by keeping a political distance from Pelosi, whom she did not support for speaker.

Spanberger lauded the legislation itself, which includes a proposal she had advocated to allow the National Science Foundation to help fund research in advanced manufacturing of pharmaceutical products, an emerging industry in the Richmond and Petersburg areas.

“This legislation will provide a pathway for the U.S. to regain its competitive position in the global manufacturing sector by providing cutting-edge technology that will promote 21st-century job creation,” said Frank Gupton, CEO of the Medicines for All Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he is chairman of pharmaceutical engineering.

McEachin chided Spanberger for her criticism of Pelosi over the long delay in acting on the legislation.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to be critical of the speaker,” he said in a phone interview on Friday. “We had other priorities we were trying to move.”

McEachin said the legislation includes provisions he sought to give small businesses more opportunities to compete for federal contracts.

“Increasing our global competitiveness means supporting all American businesses,” he said.

Both of Virginia’s senators welcomed the House vote and the start of negotiations to reconcile competing versions of legislation designed to improve the U.S.’ competitive position in the world economy, especially with China.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., one of the principal sponsors of the Senate bill, said the U.S. manufacturers currently have a five-day supply of semiconductor computer chips, “leaving vital supply chains extremely vulnerable to delays that are increasing prices for consumers on everything from automobiles to home appliances.”

Warner, who hopes to serve on the conference committee to negotiate the final bill, said the package also includes money for research and development of 5G wireless technology in a race with China for dominance in a critical telecommunications market.

He called the House vote “an important step in setting up a conference with the Senate so that we can finally get a bill to President Biden’s desk to sign.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd, both emphasized provisions of the House bill to expand financial assistance for computer science education and training programs to prepare students for jobs in high-tech industries.

“The American COMPETES Act will connect students and workers with the skills they need to succeed in high-tech industries while strengthening our economy’s competitiveness in the years ahead,” said Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and a former congressional representative for parts of the Richmond area.

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