ONEWith Congress approaching its summer recess and the fall election season, the Senate has a number of high-profile measures that are just a few votes away from passing. There’s the $433 billion health and climate bill that hinges on whether Democrats can get one of their own, Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona, to support it. And there’s the resolution codifying same-sex marriage protections that needs the support of a few more Republicans to avoid a collision.
But amid all this jockeying for support, another bill is waiting for just one thing — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to call it up for a vote.
Sponsors of legislation aimed at curbing Big Tech’s power say they have more than enough support to pass it through the House and Senate and send it to President Joe Biden, who has indicated he will sign it. But Schumer, a Democrat from New York, continues to delay, raising fears that he may sabotage the effort and give in to the intense lobbying campaign against the American Internet Innovation and Choice (AICO) Act.
Schumer, speaking to reporters last month, suggested he was waiting until AICO had enough supporters before bringing it to the Senate floor. “I’m working with Sen. Klobuchar,” Schumer said, referring to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota and one of AICO’s most outspoken champions. “I support these bills. I want to bring them to the floor. We have to see that we have 60 votes.” He reiterated this week that plans to bring the bill to a votebut did not give a timetable.
But both Democratic and Republican supporters of the bill argue that Schumer’s reticence makes no sense. “I think it’s very clear that we have the votes to pass both these bills in the House and the Senate,” Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island and author of AICO, tells TIME, referring to it and a younger companion . bill. “It’s time for the Majority Leader to introduce our bipartisan antitrust bill to combat Big Tech’s anti-competitive behavior,” agrees Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in a statement to TIME.
The AICO legislation would prohibit dominant tech companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple from favoring their own products over competitors who must use their platforms to reach customers. He has gathered some strange companions. The bill is supported by nearly every non-California Democrat and some of the most conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado. For seven months, advocates have stressed a tight deadline to pass the bill through both chambers by Aug. 8, before Congress typically adjourns for its summer recess and lawmakers go into full campaign mode. At this point, the likelihood of passing major legislation diminishes.
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Now, those same advocates have all accepted that AICO won’t come to a vote before the recess, as all focus has turned to the reconciliation package announced last week by Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia. much of Washington. If an AICO vote does come to fruition this year, it is more likely to happen in September or possibly during the session that Congress will hold after Election Day. “My hope was that we would do it before we left for the August holidays,” says Cicilline. “I think it seems more and more difficult just because of the type of other businesses. But I will continue to push them, and I’m sure Senator Klobuchar will continue to push them, to get bills to the floor, from both chambers to the president’s desk.”
Sources familiar with the process say Schumer is continuing to delay antitrust legislation to ensure Congress first passes bills that would help Democrats deal with tough midterm election challenges, such as the Climate Change Inflation Act change and lower prescription drug costs, the CHIPS and Science Act to subsidize domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research, and the PACT Act to provide health care to military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. Both the CHIPS account and the Deed of AGREEMENT they made it from both halls.
“Right now, Schumer is taking care of the kids of 2022,” says a congressional aide working on the AICO bill, who asked to remain anonymous to speak more freely about the current state of play. “Then he can go to the rest of the caucus and say, ‘I’ve taken care of them, now I’m taking care of you.’ That’s why he’s the leader and able to make both departments happy.”
For months now, lobbying groups on behalf of the big tech companies have channeled tens of millions of dollars to swallow the legislation. There are signs that their efforts have at least given some lawmakers reservations. In June, four Senate Democrats i wrote a letter to Klobuchar expressing concerns that the law would limit the platforms’ ability to moderate content, opening up companies like Amazon and Google to a series of frivolous lawsuits. Two of the four lawmakers, Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Ron Wyden of Oregon, are facing re-election this year. Other Democrats with tough races in November, such as Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, are openly worried about passing AICO. However, several polls show that most Americans approve of the legislation to deal with the tech giants. A July 2021 survey by the Future Technology Commission found that 80 percent of registered voters wanted the federal government to “limit the influence of big tech companies.”
The congressional aide said Democrats facing re-election are less concerned about voter backlash in support of the bill than they are that Big Tech companies will pour dark money into their campaigns to boost their opponents. At the same time, those same Democrats would face backlash from progressive activists and some of their own constituents if they voted against it. “The only reason [Schumer] would take so much water is to protect vulnerable Democrats,” says the congressional aide.
That’s part of what makes the AICO vote a tricky business for Schumer, even though the bill seems likely to pass even without the support of those five Democrats. The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, and the legislation needs 60 votes to avoid a tie.
Grassley, a co-sponsor of the Senate version, says there are nearly two dozen Senate Republicans ready to vote for the bill. And GOP sources familiar with the process confirm that Republican support is indeed that widespread. “Grassley and Klobuchar have the votes,” a lobbyist pushing for the legislation tells TIME. “Senator Grassley has indicated that he has more than 20 Republican votes. This follows conversations I’m having with Republican lawmakers as well. He doesn’t get the number of lashes wrong.” Another source familiar with the process tells TIME that Schumer has yet to direct the majority whip’s office to conduct a formal whip count on the legislation. According to Grassley, however, Democrats could afford to have more than 10 defectors.
Dan Geldon, a councilman who lobbied for the bill, also predicts the legislation would pass easily if it came to a vote. “If Schumer calls for a vote, there will be more than enough support for passage,” Geldon, former chief of staff to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, tells TIME.
In the House, sources familiar with the process say Speaker Nancy Pelosi is waiting for the Senate to advance the legislation before moving on to a tough vote for some of its members, especially in the California delegation.
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Earlier this year, Schumer signaled he would schedule the vote for this summer, prompting many in Congress to believe it would happen before the August recess. Now that such a vote seems unlikely, lawmakers and advocates are pushing harder for Schumer to move quickly.
“Senator Klobuchar and I have worked diligently to prepare our legislation for a vote,” Grassley says. “All the while, armies of lobbyists for the tech giants continue to mislead about our bill. We need a specific date for a vote, and I urge Senator Schumer to name one, if not before the August recess, then this fall.”
Schumer’s standoff has made him the target of multiple protests. Fight for the Future, a progressive advocacy group, is playing a John Oliver segment in support of the rerun bill on a large video screen outside Schumer’s Brooklyn home. And last week there was a demonstration outside a fundraiser attended at the Capitol. Social media is also abuzz with theories that it may belong to the tech giants. A few weeks ago, he was spotted during a week of Senate work near Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. Schumer’s office did not respond to questions asking what he was doing there.
“It’s an open secret that we have the votes,” Evan Greer, president of Fight for the Future, tells TIME. “Schumer knows we have the votes, and yet he hasn’t planned it. So it’s starting to raise eyebrows, and it certainly looks like Schumer might be hoping to run out the clock on this.”
If the tech companies that oppose the bill can’t get enough lawmakers to block it, delaying the vote is their next best option, in the hope that Congress won’t pass it this year and Republicans win back one or both the two parliaments in November. . Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the leading candidate to replace Pelosi as speaker in a GOP-controlled House and is one of AICO’s fiercest critics in Congress.
But some AICO supporters are optimistic that Schumer is just keeping his strategy for passing the bill close to the vest and will eventually surprise everyone, just as he did on climate and taxation.
“I think he will bring it to the floor,” says the congressional source. “He can’t lie publicly over and over again about coming to the floor, let alone to us privately, just because of the political hatred and the effect it will create in the long run. I can’t think of an analogy where a party leader said he was going to do something clearly and then did the opposite – and there was no accountability.”
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