On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee marked up and passed what Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called a “tremendous breakthrough” and the most significant research and development (“R&D”) legislation in over a decade.  The bill, the Endless Frontier Act, originally introduced by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN), underwent significant amendments within the Commerce Committee before and during the nearly five-hour mark-up.  The full Senate will now consider the legislation.

The mark-up revealed wide bipartisan agreement that the United States must make significant, unprecedented investments in R&D to lead on critical technologies, including vis-à-vis China.  Although one senator remarked that debates over federal funding in R&D are usually over millions—and this one involved more than a hundred billion—neither he nor any member of the Committee expressed any doubts about the size of the investments.  The major debate during the mark-up was who should receive funding.

When the Endless Frontier Act first arrived in the Committee, the bill proposed $100 billion in authorized funding to the National Science Foundation (“NSF”).  Virtually all of those funds were to be used toward creating a new “Directorate for Technology” that would provide grants for university technology centers, technology transfer, test beds, and scholarships to promote ten key technology focus areas.  The Act also proposed $10 billion for the Department of Commerce to designate and develop regional technology hubs in support of those focus areas.

Before the mark-up, amendments by Committee members winnowed the $100 billion to the NSF down to $81 billion, and required nearly half of those funds to be used for broader programming at the Foundation, while maintaining $45 billion for the Directorate (renamed as the “Directorate for Technology and Innovation”).  Even as it did so, the bill added responsibilities under the Directorate, including new programs to support R&D at institutions of higher education, research institutions, nonprofit entities, and private sector entities, and to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) education.

At the mark-up, Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) offered an amendment that would move $17 billion from the $45 billion authorized for the Directorate to R&D at the Department of Energy.  Senator Young vehemently opposed the amendment.  He underscored that the $100 billion had already been “modest” given estimates by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (AI) that $32 billion was needed every year just to keep up with China on AI.  He lamented that the $17 billion to the Department of Energy, which already receives more funding than the National Science Foundation, would serve parochial interests while undermining the efforts that had already been undertaken to garner Republican support.

Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) spoke in support of the amendment.  She emphasized the import role that the Department of Energy’s national laboratories play in developing critical technologies, including the COVID-19 vaccine, hypersonics, and AI.  Chair Cantwell agreed with Senator Blackburn and observed that the debate over where research funds should go was a recurring one that had come up with nearly every R&D legislation, including the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act (“America COMPETES Act”) in 2007 and its reauthorization in 2010.  The amendment ultimately passed by a vote of 23 to 5.

The semiconductor shortage also elicited debate.  Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) proposed an amendment to support domestic manufacturing of semiconductors, particularly mature technology nodes needed for automobiles.  In addition to Republican opposition over Davis-Bacon prevailing wage standards in the amendment, a number of senators expressed concerns regarding jurisdictional disputes between the Commerce Committee and the Armed Services Committee.  Armed Services included the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors for America Act (“CHIPS Act”) in the National Defense Authorization Act last year without any appropriated funding.  Chair Cantwell indicated that Armed Services did not fully work with the Commerce Committee last year and this amendment was part of correcting those gaps.  Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) remembered those negotiations differently and recalled extensive cooperation.  Chair Cantwell noted that separate from this amendment, there would be further opportunity to discuss the issue in the form of a debate over $50 billion in funding for the CHIPS Act, which is expected on the Senate floor.  The Peters amendment ultimately passed, with support from all the Democratic Senators and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO).

Once the dust settled, the Commerce Committee passed the bill authorizing the largest amount of federal funding to R&D in decades by a vote of 24 to 4.  The bill’s approval suggests continued strong interest in investing in critical technologies and a recognition on both sides of the aisle that the federal government plays an important role in those investments.  The heated discussion on the Luján and Peters amendments highlighted points of contention.  The Endless Frontier Act now heads to the Senate floor, where it is likely to face further debate, modification, and scrutiny, but with promising momentum from the highly favorable, bipartisan committee vote.