Senate panel advances Biden commerce nominee despite GOP anxiety about Huawei blacklist

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Republican concerns about President Biden’s Commerce Department secretary nominee not promising to keep Chinese telecom giant Huawei on a United States blacklist did not stop her from breezing past a key procedural hurdle on Wednesday.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation voted 21-3 to approve the nomination of Gina Raimondo, the Democratic governor of Rhode Island, clearing the way for a floor vote on whether to confirm her as head of the agency. Only Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida, and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee voted against Raimondo.

Huawei is one of a number of Chinese added to the Bureau of Industry and Security’s “entities list” for its role in the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance of its Uighur Muslim population, restricting the company’s and its suppliers’ access to U.S. products and technology. In the face of Republican questions about whether she would keep it there, Raimondo only pledged to review the matter and “make an assessment as to what’s best for American national and economic security.” Naming Huawei as a concern, Raimondo also testified that she would use the “full toolkit at my disposal to the fullest extent possible to protect Americans and our network from Chinese interference or any kind of backdoor influence into our network.”

The Biden pick is likely to face at least some resistance on the Senate floor, with Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and Ben Sasse sending her a letter on Friday urging clarity because Huawei “has a long track record of economic espionage, supporting human rights abuses in the PRC and elsewhere, and supporting the regime’s capture of foreign political elites” and because it “has not changed alongside the U.S. presidency.”

The Senate is split 50-50, with Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them having a tiebreaker vote in Vice President Kamala Harris. For weeks, Republicans have led committees because the two sides had not agreed on an organizing resolution, but that will soon change because a power-sharing agreement was reached on Wednesday.

Huawei was added to the entity list in May 2019 because the company and its affiliates “engaged in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests,” the Commerce Department explained in December 2020. The Bureau of Industry and Security, which is an agency within the Commerce Department, amended its foreign-produced direct product rule in May 2020 to “target Huawei’s acquisition of semiconductors that are the direct product of certain U.S. software and technology” and in August 2020, it announced even broader restrictions.

The Trump administration engaged in a broad effort to limit Huawei’s global reach, especially in the area of fifth-generation wireless, pushing its “Five Eyes” international partners to reject Huawei technology.

The Justice Department charged the Chinese giant with racketeering and conspiracy to steal trade secrets worldwide, and in June 2020, the Defense Department released a list of companies operating in the U.S. that the Pentagon believes are tied to the Chinese military — including Huawei.

Biden “has called the oppression of the Uighurs a genocide, and he stands against it in the strongest possible terms,” Emily Horne, the spokeswoman for Biden’s National Security Council, told the Washington Examiner last month.

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