WASHINGTON — The House on Monday passed two bipartisan bills aimed at bolstering research and development programs in the United States, setting up a battle with the Senate over how best to invest in scientific innovation to strengthen American competitiveness.
The bills are the House’s answer to the sprawling Endless Frontier Act that the Senate overwhelmingly passed this month, which would sink unprecedented federal investments into a slew of emerging technologies in a bid to compete with China. But lawmakers who drafted the House measures took a different approach, calling for a doubling of funding over the next five years for traditional research initiatives at the National Science Foundation and a 7 percent increase for the Energy Department’s Office of Science.
The contrast reflected concerns among House lawmakers that the Senate bill placed an outsize and overly prescriptive focus on developing nascent technologies and on replicating Beijing’s aggressive moves to gain industrial dominance. Instead, the lawmakers argued, the United States should pour more resources into its own proven research and development abilities.
“If we are to remain the world leader in science and technology, we need to act now,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas and the chairwoman of the Science Committee. “But we shouldn’t act rashly. Instead of trying to copy the efforts of our emerging competitors, we should be doubling down on the proven innovation engines we have at the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.”
Lawmakers and their aides must try to reconcile the Senate-passed legislation with the two bills passed on Monday, prompting a major debate on Capitol Hill about industrial policy and how to strengthen American competitiveness, a goal with broad bipartisan support.
The two bills passed 345-67 and 351-68.
“One of the core disagreements or tensions between the House and the Senate version is that the Senate version is really focused on China,” said Robert D. Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Ms. Johnson’s bills, he added, prioritize “more social policy issues,” including science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and climate change.
The House bills omit a number of provisions that are centerpieces of the Senate legislation, including $52 billion in emergency subsidies for semiconductor makers and a slew of trade provisions. Instead of creating regional technology hubs across the country, as the Senate measure would do, one of the House bills would establish a designated directorate for “science and engineering solutions” in the National Science Foundation.
While singling out several emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and advanced computing, lawmakers on the House Science Committee have mostly focused on research and funding a holistic approach to scientific innovation.
“History teaches that problem-solving can itself drive the innovation that in turn spawns new industries and achieves competitive advantage,” Ms. Johnson wrote.
William A. Reinsch, the Scholl chair in international business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said with sections on public health challenges and the STEM work force, the House had taken “a broader definition of how to get our innovation capabilities up and running.”
The Senate legislation, passed by a vote of 68-32, was steered through the chamber by Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, a longtime China hawk who has been eager to enact what would be the most significant government intervention in industrial policy in decades. It was powered in large part by bipartisan concern about China’s chokehold on global supply chains, which has grown particularly acute amid shortages brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. President Biden applauded its passage and said that he hoped to sign it into law “as soon as possible.”
It would allocate hundreds of billions more into scientific research and development pipelines in the United States, create grants, and foster agreements between private companies and research universities to encourage breakthroughs in new technology.
As the legislation moved through the chamber, echoing similar concerns from lawmakers on the House Science Committee, senators shifted much of the $100 billion that had been slated for a research and development hub for emerging technologies at the National Science Foundation to basic research, as well as laboratories run by the Energy Department. The amount for cutting-edge research was reduced to $29 billion, with the rest of the original funds funneled toward research and labs.
Those changes may assuage House lawmakers as they seek to reconcile the two bills in the coming months.
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