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Politics & Policy

Parsing the Admin’s Stance against Uyghur Forced-Labor Legislation

Dusk falls over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., November 18, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Josh Rogin’s bombshell report over at the Washington Post last night was the final piece in the puzzle for those following the Biden administration’s lobbying against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. His report provided confirmation that a senior administration official (Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman) was leaning on lawmakers — in this case, Senator Jeff Merkley — to “slow down and water down” the bill, which would put severe restrictions on imports originating from the Xinjiang region. And Rogin received a comment approximating an on-the-record confirmation from Merkley.

The White House is trying to deflect the accusations, telling Real Clear Politics’ Philip Wegmann that “the Administration is not lobbying against the passage of this bill.” But there’s no mistaking the significance of Rogin’s scoop: Biden officials are lobbying against the legislation by attempting to weaken it, even if they are not telling lawmakers to vote against it. Here’s the key portion of the report:

Biden administration officials have been quietly telling lawmakers to slow down. Administration sources confirmed that in an October call between Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the other co-sponsor, Sherman made it clear that the administration prefers a more targeted and deliberative approach to determining which goods are the products of forced labor. She also told Merkley that getting allied buy-in was critical and more effective than unilateral action.

Senior administration officials are lobbying against the bill’s key component, namely that it requires customs officials to presume that goods from Xinjiang were produced using forced labor. That’s a lobbying campaign against the bill, no matter what White House flacks say.

Rogin’s scoop was also significant because he received on-the-record comment from Merkley urging his colleagues to get the Uyghur legislation “over the finish line.” The quote from Merkley did not directly address the information sourced elsewhere in the piece — which Rogin attributes to “administration sources” — but it’s telling that Merkley opted to give a response for the column at all.

The piece also reveals that the lobbying campaign isn’t solely the John Kerry production that previous reports revealed. The lobbying effort surrounding the forced-labor bill, the Rogin report suggests, isn’t a rogue mission that’s been undertaken by the climate envoy’s office. Secretary Antony Blinken’s deputy is a key figure in the effort. What role has Blinken played in this? The president and White House aides?

It’s possible that the extent of this effort was Sherman’s call to Merkley, but the campaign could well be more extensive than that. It likely is more extensive. Congressional Democratic leadership has been particularly cagey about Uyghur forced-labor measures, as shown by this week’s blowup over an effort by Marco Rubio to get the forced-labor provision inserted into the annual defense-authorization package. Rubio and his Senate allies — including, prominently, Mitt Romney — claimed that corporate interests were leading on congressional Democrats to stonewall the legislation. But that was before Rogin’s column dropped, providing direct, irrefutable evidence of a sliver of what could be a much larger lobbying effort by top U.S. officials.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed last month that the administration is providing “technical assistance” on human-rights legislation — which seems to refer to the administration’s work to water down this sort of legislation. Psaki hasn’t said anything more than that, but it demands asking who, in addition to Merkley, have been the targets of the administration’s outreach.

After Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave a shaky press conference Thursday morning in which she addressed the kerfuffle over Rubio’s amendment by promising that the House would vote on a version of the legislation put forth by Representative Jim McGovern, the Connecticut Democrat said that his bill would come to a vote next week. Getting a House vote on the bill is a promising step, but that would be just one hurdle surmounted before it can become law. And congressional leaders have already proven adept at hiding behind a smokescreen of procedural excuses.

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