Congress unites to condemn China — but splits again over Biden — after spy balloon incident

The House voted 419-0 to criticize Beijing for its incursion. But when it came time to examine the administration's actions, the parties diverged again.

A day of Biden administration briefings on the Chinese spy balloon that traveled across U.S. airspace last week ended in predictably partisan fashion, with multiple Republicans airing frustration while most Democrats defended the incident’s handling.

One GOP senator, John Kennedy of Louisiana, emerged from his chamber’s Thursday classified briefing on the matter suggesting that what he called a lack of information from the Biden administration could be “intentional.”

“I do think that the Biden administration has an obligation to talk straight, if not to the American people, at least to the United States Congress,” a visibly peeved Kennedy told reporters. The ultimate question, he added, is that if news outlets hadn’t reported the incident, “were they planning on even telling the American people? Much less shoot it down. It’s time for the Biden administration to come clean.”

Kennedy was hardly alone among Capitol Hill Republicans chastising the administration for handling the balloon’s incursion inappropriately, while Democrats stood by the administration’s decision to wait until the balloon had traveled toward the coast before bringing it down. The partisan lines that formed after the briefings starkly contrasted with the House’s Thursday morning vote on a resolution condemning China for the balloon that passed in a 419-0 blowout.

That measure, introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas), required two-thirds support to pass, and its lack of opposition was a remarkable show of bipartisanship in the closely divided chamber. But the GOP remained openly concerned about the administration’s management of the balloon episode.

“I think they should have taken it down earlier,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said in an interview. “I mean, I think there’s the debate, ‘what’s the collection opportunities for us if we shut it down early?’ but then they had their collection opportunities.”

And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, also said the White House should have shot down the balloon before it completed its transit.

“We had both authority and the capability to bring it down much earlier than we did,” Rubio said. “What if it had malfunctioned, or what if it had a self-destruct mechanism and could have fallen on a city? If it wasn’t threatening, why did they shut down civil aviation?”

At least one Democrat also took the opportunity to slam Republicans for political jostling over the Chinese incursion. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) held a Thursday hearing on the balloon in the defense spending subpanel that he chairs. The centrist, who’s up for reelection in his red state next year, said Republicans were using China’s actions as an “opportunity to score some cheap political points and get attention on social media.”

“I do not care who was in the White House,” Tester said, vowing to “hold anyone accountable” he needs to in the Biden administration over the spy balloon.

While the State Department indicated it would “explore” potential punishment in response, McCaul argued on the House floor before the vote that the incident “cannot go unanswered.” A House vote in condemnation, he said, sends a “clear, bipartisan signal” to the Chinese Communist Party that the incursion “will not be tolerated.”

“I’ve never seen a foreign nation adversary fly a reconnaissance aircraft that you could see from the ground with your own eyes,” McCaul said. “The CCP threat is now within sight for Americans across the heartland, a vision and memory that they will not forget. This is further proof that the CCP does not care about having a constructive relationship with the United States.”

The bipartisan vote to censure China for violating U.S. airspace came after House Republicans initially weighed a symbolic measure more pointedly criticizing the Biden administration’s response to the balloon. GOP leaders pivoted amid lobbying from McCaul to call out China’s spy tactics on a bipartisan basis rather than ding Biden.

Democrats have noted, in particular, that bringing the balloon down closer to land would have risked injuring Americans with debris.

Republicans “would probably feel differently if the craft had been downed and killed someone on the ground and the administration put the security of the American people paramount as they should and so I think they made the right call,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a former intelligence panel chair, said in an interview after the House briefing.

Biden last week ordered the balloon shot down, but military brass advised waiting until the aircraft was over water to minimize risks. The balloon was shot down by a U.S. fighter Saturday off the coast of the Carolinas, and the military is working to recover debris.

Pressed during Thursday’s hearing on why the balloon wasn’t shot down when it first approached U.S. airspace in Alaska, Pentagon officials told senators doing so would have made recovering the payload a much riskier operation.

Melissa Dalton, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for homeland defense, said the depth of the waters near Alaska, cold temperatures and ice could make recovering debris “very dangerous.”

“If we had taken it down over the state of Alaska ... it would have been a very different recovery operation,” Dalton added. “A key part of the calculus for this operation was the ability to salvage, understand and exploit the capabilities of the high altitude balloon.”

The No. 2 U.S. diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a separate China hearing on Thursday that the administration “responded swiftly to protect Americans and safeguard against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information.”

Sherman, one of the officials who briefed lawmakers behind closed doors, added that the U.S. “made clear to PRC officials that the presence of this surveillance balloon was unacceptable.

“And along the way we learned a thing or two, which you’ll hear in the classified briefing, about the PRC’s use of the balloon,” she said.

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he was convinced by Sherman’s presentation that the administration had done the right thing by monitoring the balloon’s path across the U.S. before shooting it down over the Atlantic Ocean — as well as by announcing they would postpone Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s visit to Beijing.

“I believe that the administration acted correctly in how it dealt with the surveillance balloon,” Menendez said. “To the Chinese, it sent very resolute message, including stopping the Secretary of State from his visit, [and] the downing of the balloon. And I think all of those sends a very resolute message to the Chinese.”