Are Republicans in the Senate finally standing up to President Trump?
Not on 99% of the legislation that they vote on, but on one issue today, all but 5 Republican Senators joined the majority of their Democratic colleagues to pass a defense policy bill that restores the penalties against the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE.
ZTE was barred from buying American products for seven years and fined $1.19 billion after it was caught violating U.S. sanctions on trade with Iran.
Since many of the chips that the company needed to manufacture the phones and other electronic devices that they make come from the US, the effect of the ban on buying U.S. technology had the effect of essentially shutting the company down and led to the threat of massive layoffs in China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping appealed to President Trump to roll back the penalties, a move that Trump announced by tweet suspiciously soon after a Chinese government-controlled company invested in a luxury development that also includes a Trump-branded hotel.
The deal, brokered by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — who has come under scrutiny after failing to divest his investments in companies co-owned with the Chinese government as promised — called for keeping ZTE in business in exchange for paying a $1 billion fine, replacing its senior leadership and installing American compliance officers.
The suggestion of corruption that the timing of the announcement, coupled with concerns about the security issues involved in allowing foreign-made communications equipment that may contain secret backdoors for cyber-warfare, led even Republican Senators to call for reinstating the penalties against ZTE.
They began that process today by including a provision reinstating the penalties as part of the annual defense policy bill that passed the Senate in an 85 to 10 vote this afternoon. The bill still needs to be reconciled with a House version that does not include the restoration of penalties against the company and signed by President Trump before it becomes law.
The president is expected to fight to remove the provision from the bill before it hits his desk.
“The Administration will work with Congress to ensure the final NDAA conference report respects the separation of powers.” said Hogan Gidley, a deputy press secretary for the White House, claiming that the right to make the decision remains with the executive branch.
In addition to reinstating the penalties against ZTE, the provision in the bill prohibits government agencies from buying or leasing telecommunications equipment and services from both ZTE and Huawei, another Chinese telecom company, as well as banning the government from providing loans to or subsidizing either company.
The bipartisan group of senators who sponsored the provision, Senators Schumer (D-NY), Van Hollen (D-MD), Cotton (R-AR.) and Rubio (R-FL), issued the following statement after its passage:
“We’re heartened that both parties made it clear that protecting American jobs and national security must come first when making deals with countries like China, which has a history of having little regard for either. It is vital that our colleagues in the House keep this bipartisan provision in the bill as it heads towards a conference.”
With the tariffs that President Trump has announced already disrupting stock markets and global trade, the final resolution of U.S. policy toward ZTE may play out against a backdrop of multiple moving parts, of which Republican face-saving may play only a small factor.
Nevertheless, Republican Senators will surely be looking over their shoulder to see the reaction they get from their constituents from their rare defiant stance against Trump. Hopefully, this first attempt at gaining a spine will motivate them going forward to take seriously their constitutional mandate to act as a check and balance against Trump’s authoritarian leanings.
Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.