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China hawks flex muscle amid coronavirus fallout

The fallout from the coronavirus is shaking up the U.S.-China relationship on Capitol Hill, as a group of hawkish lawmakers fiercely criticize Beijing’s response to the disease.

Republicans are pushing for their colleagues and the Trump administration to take a more aggressive stance toward Beijing, which they say downplayed the virus’s danger.

China’s government has become a target for criticism for Republicans, along with the World Health Organization (WHO). President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE on Tuesday said he would halt funding to that organization.

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“We have seen them, along with the WHO, hide the coronavirus, not tell us the full story, not give us the full scope of the problem in China, and that has led to a hugely deleterious outcome,” Rep. Trey HollingsworthJoseph (Trey) Albert HollingsworthHillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump campaign tweet of Biden clip as manipulated media | Democrats demand in-person election security briefings resume | Proposed rules to protect power grid raise concerns Lawmakers call for bipartisan push to support scientific research The Hill's 12:30 Report: Presidential race tightens in key states MORE (R-Ind.) said Tuesday in an interview with WIBC, an Indiana radio station.

Asked if China has to “pay” for the fallout, he added: “You find out who is responsible for that and you go after who is responsible. ... We have been really harmed by China’s negligence.”

Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSenate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Senate Judiciary to vote on subpoena for Twitter CEO next week Government efforts to 'fix' social media bias overlooks the destruction of our discourse MORE (R-Tenn.) in a tweet on Tuesday wrote, “Communist China has lied to the world about COVID-19 since day one and is now responsible for over 100,000 deaths.”

GOP lawmakers are calling for a myriad of responses ranging from legislation that would penalize China, promises of their own investigations and questions about future U.S. support for the WHO, which has drawn scrutiny for its response to the virus and whether or not it was too acquiescent to Beijing.

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyTrump announces intention to nominate two individuals to serve as FEC members Murkowski predicts Barrett won't overturn Roe v. Wade Infrastructure, energy investments urgently needed to create U.S. jobs MORE (R-Mo.) — who has been skeptical of China on many fronts — introduced legislation Tuesday that would strip China of its sovereign immunity and allow it to be sued for “any reckless action it took that caused the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, such as its decisions to withhold information and to gag doctors.”

“The CCP unleashed this pandemic. They must be held accountable to their victims,” Hawley said in a statement.

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Hawley, Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonCotton mocks NY Times over claim of nonpartisanship, promises to submit op-eds as test Barrett fight puts focus on abortion in 2020 election COVID outbreak threatens GOP's Supreme Court plans MORE (R-Ark.), a longtime defense hawk, and a group of GOP House lawmakers have also introduced sanctions legislation that would target any foreign official who suppressed or distorted information about a public health crisis.

And Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHillicon Valley: Big Tech hearing the most partisan yet | Rubio warns about foreign election interference | Trump campaign site briefly hacked Tech CEOs clash with lawmakers in contentious hearing Trump announces intention to nominate two individuals to serve as FEC members MORE (R-Texas) introduced his own sanctions legislation Tuesday targeting Chinese officials who “prohibit, limit, or penalize” Chinese citizens for discussing the coronavirus, including on social media; or those who penalize Chinese citizens for disseminating accurate information about the virus, or limits access to print, broadcast, digital or social media.

“When Congress returns, introducing this legislation is just one of the necessary steps I will take to hold the Chinese officials involved in covering up the coronavirus outbreak accountable,” Cruz said in a statement.

Lawmakers are pushing for actions beyond just legislation. For example, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLate donor surges push election spending projections to new heights Pence seeks to lift GOP in battle for Senate Wall Street backed Biden campaign with million in 2020 cycle: report MORE (R-S.C.), a foreign policy hawk who is a close ally of Trump’s, has floated suspending debt payments to China. Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesDemocrat trails by 3 points in Montana Senate race: poll Poll shows statistical tie in Montana Senate race Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid MORE (R-Mont.) has called on the State Department to investigate China’s role in the response to the pandemic.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonOvernight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand screening of foreign visitors Democrat announces 2022 bid for Ron Johnson's seat MORE (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a member of the panel, are also investigating the U.S. and international response to the virus, including a focus on China and the role of the WHO.

They joined with five other Republican senators Tuesday to send a letter to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, requesting details on its response ahead of a congressional hearing on “helping the Chinese Communist Party cover up information regarding the threat of the Coronavirus.”

“American taxpayers fund the WHO, and it is up to us to make sure those taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely,” they added.

Some Republicans have referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus,” descriptions critics say are racist. They’ve also sought to use China as a political weapon against Democrats amid the coronavirus pandemic. The National Republican Congressional Committee, for example, accused Rep. Sean CastenSean CastenChamber-backed Democrats embrace endorsements in final stretch The Hill's Campaign Report: Buzz builds around Warren for VP Gun control group rolls out House endorsements MORE (D-Ill.) of “unwittingly spewing” Chinese propaganda or being a “Chinese asset.”

Some critics have said the attacks appear aimed in part at deflecting blame from Trump, who at various points earlier this year said the coronavirus was under control and would “miraculously” go away when the weather warmed in April.

But people in both parties have questioned whether China concealed information about the initial COVID-19 outbreak and failed to tell the world of its seriousness. Officials in China denied in January that it could be transmitted between humans.

Asked about potential actions the administration would take, Trump demurred during a White House press conference Monday, telling reporters they would “find out.”

“We have a relationship with China that — we’re not happy with certain things that happened over the last period of time, as you know, and I’ve been very explicit on that,” Trump said.

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Reducing U.S. dependence on China for key medicines and supplies is an area that could draw bipartisan support.

A bill from Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Big Tech hearing the most partisan yet | Rubio warns about foreign election interference | Trump campaign site briefly hacked Rubio warns that election interference may ramp up around Election Day Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE (R-Fla.) that advocates for the U.S. to reprioritize its productive capability in order to achieve less supply chain dependence on China has garnered support from three Democratic senators, including Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWhat a Biden administration should look like Overnight Defense: Dems want hearing on DOD role on coronavirus vaccine | US and India sign data-sharing pact | American citizen kidnapped in Niger Conservative operatives Wohl, Burkman charged in Ohio over false robocalls MORE (Mass.).

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyBitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court Democrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation Democrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle MORE (D-Conn.), who supports Rubio’s bill, said he would back “good faith efforts” to understand the origin of the virus but questioned the GOP motives.

“Right now, there is a very coordinated effort amongst the White House and their allies to try to find scapegoats for the fatal mistakes that the president made during the early stages of this virus,” Murphy told reporters during a Tuesday conference call.

“It is just widely ironic that the president and his allies are now criticizing China or the WHO for being soft on China, when it was in fact the president who was the chief apologist for China during the early stages of this crisis,” he added. “The mistakes that China and the WHO made did not mean that it was inevitable that the United States faced tens of thousands of deaths.”