Before the forced labour bill’s passage, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that the US was “falling short” of its responsibility to combat crimes of genocide, and pointed to the legislation as an effective tool to combat forced labour.
With the bill, “we shine a bright light on this pattern of abuse, and we send Beijing a clear message this genocide must end now,” said Pelosi, Democrat of California.
The Senate passed its own version of the bill in July by a unanimous vote, but Biden cannot sign it into law until differences between the two versions are resolved.
Representative Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed frustration that House leadership had not opted simply to adopt the Senate version, which would have allowed lawmakers to send the legislation straight to the White House.
“Instead we’re setting this bill up for further legislative gridlock, by passing a conflicting version,” McCaul said on the House floor.
Representative Gregory Meeks, Democrat of New York and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, countered that the House version had “superior” provisions, including a much shorter grace period for companies to adjust their supply chains before the import ban is implemented.
The Senate version requires that the prohibition take effect 300 days after it becomes law, whereas the House version provides a grace period of just four months.
It remains unclear whether lawmakers will work to produce a new bill that reconciles the differences or opt to move the legislation through other means. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, did not respond to a request for comment.
In theory, the Senate could adopt the House version, but one senior congressional aide familiar with the matter said senators were unlikely to accept the House-passed bill. The staffer expected the Senate instead to attach a version of the legislation to a larger, end-of-year bill.
However lawmakers choose to advance the bill, little time remains before they are set to leave Capitol Hill for the winter recess. They will return in January and could pick the legislation back up then.
But on Wednesday, Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts and the bill’s author, urged colleagues to rally behind the legislation so it could be passed before the upcoming Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing.
“We must take a clear, moral position to stand with those who are suffering from forced labour and not with the Chinese government, the IOC and the big corporations who profit off the exploitation of slave labour,” McGovern said.
The bill’s advancement in the House comes amid reports in the US media that the Biden administration – notably US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman – had privately voiced opposition to lawmakers about wide scope of the legislation, instead favouring a more targeted approach.
Sherman and others in the administration have denied the reports, which State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday described as “misinformation”.
“We do not oppose [the bill],” Price told reporters. “We are not lobbying against it.”
Pressed on the administration’s position on Tuesday, Sherman ran through a litany of steps the Biden administration has taken in response to Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, including sanctions against Chinese officials, advice to US companies not to do business in Xinjiang, and the recent announcement of a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games.
But on blocking imports, Sherman would not say if she favoured a targeted approach rather than a blanket ban. “We don’t oppose this amendment,” she said, “and we leave the rest up to the United States Congress.”
Additional reporting by Jacob Fromer