Schumer Stalls Anti-Big-Tech Bill, Despite Broad Support
AThe Senate is closing in on its fall campaign season and Congress will soon be returning to summer recess. However, it has some notable measures that the Senate needs just a few votes to pass. There’s the $433 billion health and climate bill that hinges on whether Democrats can convince one of their own, Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona, to back it. And there’s the resolution codifying same-sex marriage protection that needs the backing of a few more Republicans to avoid a filibuster.
But amid all that jockeying for support, another bill is waiting only on one thing—for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to call it for a vote.
Sponsors of legislation to limit the power of Big Tech claim they have enough support to pass it through the House and Senate, and then send it to the President Joe Biden. He has indicated that he will sign it. Schumer is a New York Democrat. He continues to stall the bill, raising suspicions that he could be sabotage the effort and giving into the relentless lobbying campaign against American Innovation and Choice Online Act.
Schumer suggested to reporters that he was waiting for AICO’s supporters before bringing the bill up on the Senate floor. “I’m working with Sen. Klobuchar,” Schumer said, referring to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and one of the most outspoken champions of AICO. “I support these bills. They should be brought to the floor. We have to see that we have 60 votes.”
But both Democratic and Republican proponents of the bill claim Schumer’s cautiousness doesn’t make sense. “I think it’s very clear that we have the votes to pass both those bills in the House and in the Senate,” Rep. David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island and the author of AICO, tells TIME, referring to it and a smaller companion bill. “It’s past time that the majority leader brings up our bipartisan antitrust bill cracking down on Big Tech’s anticompetitive behavior,” agrees Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, in a statement to TIME.
AICO would ban tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook from favoring their products over those of their competitors. It has garnered some strange bedfellows; the bill is supported by virtually every Democrat who isn’t from California and some of the most conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill, such as Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado. Supporters have been pressing for a strict deadline to move the bill through each chamber by August 8. Congress is usually on summer recess, so legislators switch to campaign mode and Congress breaks. The likelihood of major legislation passing is reduced at this point.
Continue reading: A Major Victory for Big Tech is Possible with the Strange Coalition in Congress
Now, those same advocates have all accepted that AICO won’t come up for a vote before the break, as all the focus has turned to the reconciliation package that Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, announced last week, stunning much of Washington. A vote on AICO is likely to take place in September, or possibly during the Congress’ lame duck session after Election Day. “My hope was that we would do it before we leave for the August recess,” Cicilline says. “I think that looks increasingly difficult just because of the press of other business. But I’m going to keep pressing them, and I’m certain that Sen. Klobuchar is going to keep pressing them, to get the bills to the floor, out of both chambers to the president’s desk.”
According to sources familiar with the matter, Schumer is delaying antitrust legislation in order to ensure Congress passes the bills that will help Democrats face tough midterm challenges. These include the Inflation Reduction Act, to combat climate change, and the Science and CHIPS Acts to subsist domestic semiconductor production and research. The PACT Act provides health care for military vets who have been exposed to toxic burn pits. Both the CHIPS bill as well the PACT Act made it to both chambers.
“Right now, Schumer is taking care of his 2022-ers,” says a Congressional aide working on the AICO bill who requested anonymity to speak more freely about the current state of play. “Then he can go to the rest of the caucus and say, ‘I took care of them, now I’m taking care of you.’ That’s why he’s the leader and able to make both segments happy.”
Lobby groups representing major tech companies have spent tens to millions of dollars over the past months trying to stop the legislation. Their efforts are beginning to show some signs that they have made some legislators pause. A letter was written by four Senate Democrats to Klobuchar on June 23rd, informing him of their concerns over the law’s limitations to platforms’ ability for content to be moderated. This would open up the possibility of lawsuits from companies like Amazon and Google. The Sens. Sens. Brian Schatz from Hawaii and Ron Wyden, Oregon are up for reelection. Others Democrats in difficult races, such as Sen. Maggie Hassan from New Hampshire, are openly concerned about AICO passing. However, polls indicate that the majority of Americans would approve legislation to challenge tech giants. A July 2021 survey by the Future of Tech Commission found that 80 percent of registered voters wanted the federal government to “curb the influence of Big Tech companies.”
According to the Congressional aide, Democrats who are up for reelection will be less worried about the blowback they get from voters by supporting the bill and more concerned that Big Tech companies will flood dark money into their races in order to support their rivals. These same Democrats could face an backlash by progressive activists and their constituents if the bill was rejected. “The only reason [Schumer] would take this much water is to protect vulnerable Democrats,” the Congressional aide says.
That’s part of what makes the AICO vote a complicated matter for Schumer, even though the bill appears likely to pass even without the support of those five Democrats. It is divided 50-50 by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. To prevent a filibuster, it needs 60 votes.
Grassley is a cosponsor for the Senate version. He says that nearly twenty-six Senate Republicans are ready to support the bill. GOP sources close to the situation confirm that Republican support for the bill is very widespread. “Grassley and Klobuchar have the votes,” a lobbyist pushing for the legislation tells TIME. “Senator Grassley has stated he has more than 20 Republican votes. This is consistent with my conversations with Republican legislators. He doesn’t get the whip count wrong.” Another source familiar with the process tells TIME that Schumer hasn’t yet directed the majority whip’s office to conduct an official whip count on the legislation. Grassley said that Democrats could have more defectors than 10.
Dan Geldon, who is an expert in lobbying, predicts that the bill would easily pass if the vote takes place. “If Schumer calls a vote, there will be more than enough support for passage,” Geldon, a former chief of staff to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, tells TIME.
Sources familiar with the House process claim that Speaker Nancy Pelosi waits for Senate approval before moving forward with legislation. This would make it difficult for her to vote on the bill, particularly in California.
Continue reading: Big Tech Is Coming to Small-Town America, But There’s a Catch
Schumer indicated earlier this year that he will schedule the vote this summer. This led many members of Congress to think it would take place before August recess. Advocates and lawmakers are asking Schumer to act quickly now that it seems unlikely to happen.
“Senator Klobuchar and I have worked meticulously to prepare our legislation for a floor vote,” Grassley says. “All the while, armies of lobbyists for the tech giants continue to mislead about our bill. We need a date certain for a vote, and I call on Senator Schumer to name one if not before August recess, then this fall.”
Schumer’s stalling has made him the target of multiple protests. Fight for the Future, a progressive advocacy group, has been playing a John Oliver segment in support of the bill on repeat on a large video screen outside of Schumer’s Brooklyn home. Last week, there was also a protest outside of the Capitol Hill fundraiser. Social media has also been replete with theories that he may be beholden to the tech behemoths; a few weeks ago, he was spotted during a week the Senate was working near Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. Schumer’s office did not respond to questions asking what he was doing there.
“It is an open secret that we have the votes,” Evan Greer, Fight for the Future’s president, tells TIME. “Schumer knows we have the votes, and yet he hasn’t scheduled it. So it does start to raise eyebrows, and it certainly does seem like Schumer may be hoping to run out the clock on this.”
If the tech firms opposed to the bill can’t convince enough lawmakers to block it, delaying the vote is their next best option, in hopes that Congress won’t get to it this year and Republicans will win back one or both chambers in November. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, is the leading candidate to replace Pelosi as speaker in a GOP-controlled House, and is one of AICO’s fiercest critics in Congress.
Some AICO supporters are hopeful that Schumer will keep his strategy close to his vest for passing the bill and surprise everyone, just like he did with the tax and climate bill.
“I think that he is going to bring it to the floor,” says the congressional source. “It cannot be the case that he would lie publicly over and over again about it coming to the floor, let alone to us privately, simply because of the political hatred and vitriol that will generate long term. I can’t think of an analogy where a leader of a party said they were going to do something clearly and then did the opposite—and there wasn’t a reckoning.”
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