(WASHINGTON) — The downing of a third high-altitude object — this one over Canada, on Saturday — only increases the urgency for Congress to get to the bottom of what appears to be a previously unknown surveillance program by the Chinese, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday.
In an exclusive interview, Schumer told ABC “This Week” anchor George Stephanopoulos that “the bottom line is, until a few months ago, we didn’t know of these balloons.”
The suspected Chinese reconnaissance program also existed during the Trump administration but was only recently discovered by the U.S. intelligence and military communities, according to Schumer.
“It’s wild we didn’t know, isn’t it?” Stephanopoulos said.
“It is wild that we didn’t know, absolutely,” Schumer said, adding, “Now they are learning a lot more.”
And now, Schumer said, it’s essential for lawmakers to learn more, too. He pointed to efforts by Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
“That’s something I support, Congress should look at that. That’s the question we have to answer,” Schumer said. “I think our military, our intelligence is doing a great job, present and future. I feel a lot of confidence in what they are doing. But why as far back as the Trump administration did no one know about this?”
Schumer said he was briefed by the White House’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on the most recent object shot down over Canada on Saturday. According to Schumer, intelligence officials believe that object as well as the unknown object shot down over Alaska on Friday and the craft downed over South Carolina waters earlier this month were all balloons.
The vessels over Alaska and Canada were “much smaller” than the earlier balloon and posed a different threat because they were flying at a similar altitude to commercial planes, Schumer said.
“The military and the intelligence are focused like a laser on, first, gathering and accumulating the information, then coming up with a comprehensive analysis of what went on before, what’s going on now and what could go on in the future,” Schumer said.
All members of Congress were briefed Thursday on the suspected Chinese spy craft that was shot down off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4 after it crossed over much of the continental U.S. The briefing prompted outrage from some Republicans who criticized the administration for failing to act sooner.
But Schumer defended the administration’s decision.
“We got an enormous intelligence information from surveilling the balloon as it went over the United States,” Schumer insisted.
“Didn’t the Chinese get enormous intelligence as well?” Stephanopoulos followed up.
“They could have been getting it anyway. But we have to know what they’re doing, OK?” Schumer said.
By shooting the vessel down over water, Schumer said the U.S. will be able to literally piece together more information about its capabilities: “We’re going to probably be able to piece together this whole surveillance balloon and know exactly what’s going on.”
He called it “humiliating” for China and a “huge coup for the United States.”
“I think the Chinese were caught lying, and I think it’s a real step back for them,” he said.
There is growing bipartisan agreement in Congress that something must be done to counter China’s aggression, both from the sky and in commerce and competition. Schumer, a self-described “China hawk,” pointed to ongoing legislative efforts to regulate the U.S. relationship with China in other ways as well — by encouraging domestic rather than overseas manufacturing and by considering a possible ban on TikTok, the popular China-backed social media app.
Still, Schumer said, “We can’t just have a cold war with them [China]. We have to have a relationship.”
House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky., echoed Schumer in his own appearance on “This Week,” but faulted the Biden White House for not setting “a very good example of standing up to China” on economic, academic and patent issues.
“This is a problem for the United States. And we need an administration to stand firm,” he said.
Debt ceiling needs to be addressed ‘without brinksmanship’
While lawmakers look to chart a path forward on U.S. policy toward China, the potential of a debt limit crisis is sending both parties to their respective camps.
The management of how to increase the $31.4 trillion federal debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department has indicated will need to be done as soon as June to make sure none of the federal government’s bills go unpaid, could culminate in a high-stakes stare down between House Republicans and the administration.
Republicans in the chamber, led by newly elected Speaker Kevin McCarthy, are insistent that any increase to the debt limit be conditioned upon cuts to the federal budget. But President Joe Biden wants Congress to raise the debt ceiling without conditions and has said that any discussions of the budget should happen separately.
Senators on both sides of the aisle have largely insisted that a solution be crafted between McCarthy and the White House. Schumer threw his full weight behind the administration’s position Sunday.
“We have a position, we have a clear position: Do it clean do it, without brinksmanship. Do it without this risk of hostage-taking where things could blow up,” Schumer sad. “Because as you know, if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, average American families will be clobbered.”
The Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, has accused Schumer and Senate Democrats of hypocrisy in their position, noting in floor remarks last week that at one point during the Trump administration, Schumer cast the debt limit as an “ample opportunity for bipartisanship, not for one party jamming its choices down the throats of the other.”
But when pressed by Stephanopoulos on “This Week,” Schumer insisted that McConnell drew a false equivalency.
“The bottom line is that we never did what McCarthy is doing — brinkmanship, holding hostage, saying ‘I won’t do the debt ceiling, I won’t raise the debt ceiling and raise the debts that of course we’ve incurred unless I get certain things that I want,'” Schumer said.
Schumer called on McCarthy, as he has been doing for weeks, to release a plan on his proposed budget cuts. Comer said on “This Week” that the GOP conference is working on its budget request and that it would not — as Schumer suggested — include cuts to Social Security or Medicare.
Biden made a similar call for Republicans to outline what they want during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, which Schumer cast a broad success.
He pointed to Biden’s speech, which highlighted many of the legislative accomplishments Democrats secured in the president’s first two years, as evidence that the Biden is in “great shape” heading into a potential 2024 presidential reelection bid, despite polling showing most Democrats want another nominee.
“What do you say to them?” Stephanopoulos asked.
As more of Biden’s legislative agenda is implemented, support for him will grow, Schumer argued.
“I think the stature of Biden and what this Congress, this Democratic Congress, Senate and the House, have done is going to even rise further in the American people’s eyes,” he said.
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