Congress Clashes With Biden Over Tariffs on Illegal Chinese Solar Panels

The Senate voted on Wednesday to reinstate tariffs on solar panels from Chinese companies in Southeast Asia that had been found to be coming into the United States in violation of trade rules.

The measure, which passed by a vote of 56 to 41, had already been approved by the House. It sets up a showdown with the Biden administration, which had temporarily halted the tariffs to try to ensure that the country had an adequate supply of solar panels in the fight against climate change.

President Biden has said that he will veto the measure, and a two-thirds majority of lawmakers in both houses would be needed to override him.

But the measure, which several key Democrats supported, was a notable rebuke of the Biden administration’s actions. Critics have said that Mr. Biden’s decision not to impose the tariffs on the Chinese solar makers violated U.S. trade rules and failed to defend American workers.

“We must hold those who violate U.S. trade laws accountable, including China,” said Representative Dan Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, who wrote the House legislation. “When we fail to enforce our trade laws, it hurts Michigan and American businesses and workers.”

The fight centers on whether certain solar imports were brought into the United States at unfairly low prices. In December, a U.S. trade court ruled that four Chinese companies had illegally tried to dodge American tariffs on solar products sent from China by routing their products through factories in Southeast Asia.

Typically, companies that are found to be circumventing U.S. tariffs would immediately be subject to higher duty rates to bring their products into the United States. But Mr. Biden took the unusual step in June of pausing those tariffs for two years.

The delay was supported by solar panel importers and project installers, who argued that the tariffs should be paused for even longer.

But some prominent Democrats have said the president’s decision was a violation of U.S. trade rules written to protect American manufacturers from unfair foreign competition. Republicans have also seized on the issue to criticize Mr. Biden as being weak on China and spotlighted the Chinese solar industry’s ties with forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China.

“The president got this one wrong,” Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, said in a statement in late April. “I’ve always stood up to presidents of both parties to fight for fair trade and a level playing field for Ohio workers, which is why I will support congressional action to end the administration’s waiver of solar tariffs.”

The Biden administration is taking steps to limit U.S. dependence on China, including investing heavily to build up American manufacturing of solar panels, semiconductors and car batteries.

But the White House sees mitigating climate change as among its most important priorities, and officials have argued that in the near term the United States will need to continue purchasing solar products from China, which makes the vast majority of cells and panels that convert sunlight into electricity.

In a statement on April 24, the White House said that it strongly opposed the congressional resolution and that the president would veto it if it were passed.

“The administration is working aggressively to support domestic solar panel manufacturing,” the White House statement said, adding, “However, these investments will take time to ramp up production — which is why last spring, the president declared an emergency to ensure that Americans have access to reliable, affordable and clean electricity.”

For Republicans and Democrats in Congress, tough measures against China have become one rare area of bipartisan agreement, with lawmakers banding together to call for tougher trade penalties and grilling the chief executive of TikTok, a Chinese-owned app.

On Monday, Senate Democrats announced that they would introduce a bill to maintain America’s economic leadership against China, building on previous legislation subsidizing the semiconductor industry. The House select committee on China is also gearing up to begin investigating major businesses’ possible ties to forced labor in Xinjiang. Adidas, Nike, Shein and Temu are expected to be the panel’s initial targets, according to a person familiar with the plans.

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