After TikTok bill sails through House, Senators pump the brakes

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After a bill calling for the forced sale or ban of TikTok blazed through the House, senators on Thursday dialed back the pace — urging cautious deliberation on an effort that could shutter an app used by more than 100 million U.S. users.

The legislation represents a severe threat to the popular video-sharing app’s operations. It advanced just eight days after its introduction in a 352-65 vote, unfettered by the popular video app’s aggressive campaigning.

But some senators fear the slower negotiations could allow TikTok’s furious lobbying blitz to neutralize the push in the upper chamber. TikTok unleashed a sprawling attempt to thwart the bill, urging its users to blanket Congress with calls and dispatching CEO Shou Zi Chew to campaign on the Hill. Some lawmakers say more time could allow the company to quash the negotiations.

TikTok, which has denied claims of foreign influence and sought to assuage U.S. privacy concerns, slammed the bill this week on social media as a thinly-veiled attempt to boot the app and said on X that it was “disappointing members of Congress would complain about hearing from their own constituents.”

If the measure were to pass this month, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, would be forced to sell the app by September, two months before voters head to the ballot box — and Democrats are reliant upon young voters to goose turnout in key swing districts.

Now as the debate shifts to the Senate, members said that while they are wary of giving TikTok a chance to influence discussions, many are hesitant to match the House’s swift proceedings.

“These fields are evolving and changing so rapidly, that you can do a lot of damage by moving too quickly or without the facts,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, which would probably review the measure, said the chamber should “examine” the bill and have his panel take it up, but declined to endorse the proposal as it stands.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), an outspoken critic of TikTok and other major tech companies, said he was wary of letting the legislation get bogged down by committee meetings and lobbying.

“They will try to kill this slowly, refer it to committee … think about it some [more] and this time next year we’ll be right here having the same conversation,” he said.

TikTok and ByteDance’s spending on federal lobbying has risen dramatically as scrutiny over their ties to China has grown in Washington. They spent less than $300,000 in 2019 but more than $20 million in the years since, according to a review of federal lobbying disclosure forms. The companies’ lobbying nearly doubled from 2022 to 2023, when discussion around legislation to potentially ban TikTok or sever their ties gained momentum on Capitol Hill.

The companies have enlisted a battalion of connected lobbyists to shape policy in Congress, according to federal disclosures from late last year. That includes former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and former congressmen Jeff Denham, Joseph Crowley and Bart Gordon and former aides to key senators, like Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Former president Donald Trump, once one of TikTok’s fiercest critics, reversed his call to ban the app, partially as a result of a lobbying campaign linked to GOP megadonor and ByteDance investor Jeff Yass, The Washington Post previously reported.

Trump reiterated his opposition to banning TikTok in a Truth Social post Thursday, claiming that Facebook parent company Meta posed a greater threat. Facebook, Trump said, “WILL ONLY GET BIGGER AND STRONGER IF TIKTOK IS TAKEN OUT.”

Some of Trump’s Senate allies said that while they are inclined to support the House effort, they need more time.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he was “leaning very strongly” toward backing it but had yet to decide. “I need to hear some of the intelligence stuff that I haven’t had access to yet,” he said.

Others urged the chamber to move delicately given the app’s vast popularity.

“This is a very big decision,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an ally of Trump’s. “You’ve got [170] million people who use the thing, and you want to protect them but you also want to make sure that they can enjoy the app.”

The path of least resistance to defeat the legislation is for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to refer it to the Commerce Committee, said Akash Chougule, vice president of right-wing advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. The organization has lobbied lawmakers in support of the bill, though Chougule declined to discuss meetings with specific lawmakers.

“I think folks in Washington understand that if something like this gets referred to committee, it’s as good as dead,” he said. “If Leader Schumer were to do that, I think it’d be clear he’s not serious about the threat posed by TikTok.”

After the House passed the bill Wednesday, Schumer issued a brief statement: “The Senate will review the legislation when it comes over from the House.”

Cantwell (D-Wash.), whose panel may ultimately decide the effort’s fate, said lawmakers will consider both the House bill and her yet-to-be-released alternative plan to regulate apps like TikTok, which she described as “more robust and long-term.”

“The nice way to put it is there’s a very large backlog of legislative priorities making their way through the Commerce Committee,” said one corporate and political consultant whose clients routinely face the panel’s scrutiny, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the dynamics. “Whether the TikTok legislation would make its way through the Commerce Committee in 2024 would very much remain an open question.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), another lawmaker active on technology issues, said that while he supported forcing TikTok to divest from ByteDance, the Senate should hold hearings and markups on the matter. “The two chambers operate in different ways,” he said.

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