Sen. Marco Rubio joined a small minority of the most liberal and conservative members of the U.S. Senate to vote against a massive defense spending bill named after ailing Sen. John McCain on Wednesday after Republican leaders declined to punish Chinese telecom giant ZTE, a company that ran afoul of U.S. sanctions against North Korea and Iran.
Rubio voted against the yearly defense spending package along with nine other senators, eight of them Democrats including potential presidential hopefuls like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who will likely use their opposition to military spending as a campaign issue in a future Democratic primary.
It's the first time that Rubio has voted against a defense spending bill since joining the U.S. Senate. He missed a vote on the package in 2015 while running for president.
"We got a lot of good things in it that we fought for, but the ZTE, the threat that China poses in my mind, overrides everything," Rubio said.
In June, the Trump administration announced that Chinese telecom giant ZTE will pay a $1 billion fine and fund an in-house compliance team staffed by U.S. experts after the company was caught shipping communications equipment to North Korea and Iran, and lied to U.S. investigators about it. The ZTE deal came after the Commerce Department announced a seven-year ban on ZTE buying American parts, an action that President Trump said would lead to "too many jobs in China lost."
Trump then instructed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to cut a deal, over the objections of Rubio and most lawmakers on Capitol Hill from both parties.
But Republican leaders recently took out a provision in the military spending bill that would have prevented ZTE from buying American technology in a rebuke to Trump. The decision was met with derision by some Republicans and Democrats, though it wasn't enough to sway most senator's votes. Instead, the bill includes a provision that limits government purchases of ZTE technology such as cell phones and handsets.
"Sadly we failed this chin check," Rubio tweeted a few hours before the vote. "The U.S. saved
#ZTE as a goodwill gesture to Xi. And #China responded to this overly generous gesture of “goodwill” by blocking Qualcomm purchase of NXP Semiconductors NV even after @Treasury asked them for it in return. Learn the lesson!"
Rubio said he's not worried about voting against a bill the the president pitches as a win for the military, saying service members and veterans understand why it was important to send a symbolic rebuke to China.