Ban TikTok? Debate creates strange bedfellows with an eye on 2024 election

"It was certainly a weird one," one GOP House aide said of Wednesday's vote.

March 13, 2024, 3:46 PM

The debate raging on Capitol Hill over TikTok is creating strange bedfellows and blurring ideological lines ahead of the November election.

The House of Representatives Wednesday passed a bill by an overwhelming 352-65 vote that would force TikTok's China-based parent company ByteDance to sell its ownership in the social media platform or face having the app banned in the U.S.

The bipartisan coalition -- unusually broad for the bare-knuckle boxing ring the House has become -- saw seemingly sworn enemies like Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, vote in favor of the bill and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., vote against it.

And many of the Republicans who supported the legislation included staunch allies of Donald Trump like Jordan and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. -- bucking the former president's opposition to the bill.

"It was certainly a weird one," said one GOP House aide to a member who voted for the bill.

"It's very rare to see these members vote together on controversial bills. It's always interesting when votes show that the political spectrum is really just a full circle on some of these issues," added another GOP House aide to a second member who voted in support of the legislation.

Besides forcing ByteDance to sell the app within six months of its signing or have TikTok banned, the bill would apply that rule to all apps controlled by a foreign rival, including China, North Korea, Russia and Iran.

Yet much of the debate focused on TikTok and China -- lumping China hawks in both parties together and creating a separate coalition of bipartisan free speech absolutists and party gadflies.

Supporters of the legislation have centered their arguments around ByteDance's ties to the Chinese government, warning that relationship could turn TikTok into a potent tool for Beijing to invade the privacy of American consumers and influence them in an election year.

"Communist China is America’s largest geopolitical foe and is using technology to actively undermine America’s economy and security," Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said in a statement. "Today’s bipartisan vote demonstrates Congress’ opposition to Communist China’s attempts to spy on and manipulate Americans, and signals our resolve to deter our enemies. I urge the Senate to pass this bill and send it to the President so he can sign it into law."

Opponents are framing their disagreement around First Amendment concerns, warning that the bill itself violates Americans' freedom of speech and opens the door to future clampdowns on other platforms.

"As Ranking Member of the Intelligence Committee I have more insight than most into the online threats posed by our adversaries. But one of the key differences between us and those adversaries is the fact that they shut down newspapers, broadcast stations, and social media platforms. We do not. We trust our citizens to be worthy of their democracy," said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

PHOTO: Rep. Jim Himes speaks to members of the press after a briefing at the U.S. Capitol, on Feb. 14, 2024, in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Jim Himes speaks to members of the press after a briefing at the U.S. Capitol, on Feb. 14, 2024, in Washington, D.C.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The bill's passage flew in the face of an unrelenting lobbying campaign from TikTok itself, which sent influencers and a coterie of hired hands to Capitol Hill to convince lawmakers to oppose the bill. The app also sent select users a push notification to have them reach out their representatives, leading House offices to be flooded with calls from people who were opposed to the legislation but included some who weren't even sure who they were contacting.

"This process was secret and the bill was jammed through for one reason: it's a ban. We are hopeful that the Senate will consider the facts, listen to their constituents, and realize the impact on the economy, 7 million small businesses, and the 170 million Americans who use our service," the app said in a statement Wednesday morning.

The legislation now heads to an uncertain future in the Senate, where the bill would need 60 votes to pass and lawmakers have been cooler to the prospect of voting on the bill. That chamber too has seen stances that cross traditional alliances, with Trump supporters like Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., backing the bill.

PHOTO: Devotees of TikTok gather at the Capitol in Washington D.C., Mar. 13, 2024.
Devotees of TikTok gather at the Capitol in Washington D.C., Mar. 13, 2024.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

"The people who are voting for it and coming together, it's not crazy that they're coming together on an issue of national security and an issue of reining in big tech because those are things that should transcend partisanship," said one former Democratic House aide who is familiar with the bill's drafting, noting the unusual nature of legislative enemies voting the same way Wednesday.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., only said in a short statement after the House vote that "the Senate will review the legislation when it comes over from the House" without any promise for a floor vote.

Complicating the debate over the app is the 2024 presidential race, with each candidate bringing convoluted histories to the topic.

President Joe Biden has said he would sign the bill into law even after his campaign joined the app, with the White House stating Wednesday its pleasure with the House vote. And Trump said he does not want to see the legislation pass out of fear of empower Meta -- a reversal from his past support that came after a meeting with hedge fund manager and GOP megadonor Jeff Yass, whose company owns tens of billions of dollars' worth of stocks in ByteDance.

The debate comes at the same time as polling that suggest Biden is performing worse with young voters than he did in the 2020 race -- slippage that could cost him his reelection and that bill opponents have highlighted.

"Successful politics is addition and multiplication. And cutting out a large group of young voters is not the best-known strategy for reelection," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters Tuesday.

But several hurdles remain that could block the TikTok legislation from significantly influencing the results later this year.

Senate passage of the bill is dubious at best, reducing the chances that Biden would even get the chance to sign it into law and dampening any electoral fallout.

"It will be interesting to see what the Senate does. I don't see this having much of a lasting impact unless it's signed into law, which seems increasingly unlikely, especially as we get closer to November," the second GOP House aide said.

On top of that, even if the bill is signed, TikTok users could sue and possibly delay implementation until after the election. The race is between two candidates with universal name recognition, limiting the possibility of outside factors to changer voters' minds. And several other issues are anticipated to dominate the countless news cycles between Wednesday and Nov. 5.

"I just really question whether or not people are sitting at home because they're TikTok-issue voters. And if you're a TikTok-issue voter, you probably weren't someone who was gonna absolutely be out on Election Day in the first place," the former Democratic House aide said.

"Frankly, I'd be shocked if this issue has any resonance among swing voters come November," added GOP pollster Robert Blizzard. "That's a million political lifetimes from now."