AAs Congress approaches its summer recess and fall campaign season, the Senate has some important measures that are just a few votes away from passage. There’s a $433 billion health and climate bill that depends on whether Democrats can convince one of their own, Sen. Kristen Sinema of Arizona, to support it. There’s also a resolution codifying same-sex marriage protections that needs the support of a few more Republicans to avoid a filibuster.
But amid all this jockeying for support, another bill is waiting for just one thing — for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to call it up for a vote.
Sponsors of legislation designed to limit the power of Big Tech say they have more than enough support to pass it in the House and Senate and send it to President Joe Biden, who has signaled he will sign it. Yet Schumer, a Democrat from New York, has continued to delay, raising concerns that he could sabotage the effort and succumb to the intense lobbying campaign against the American Innovation and Online Choice (AICO) Act.
Schumer, speaking to reporters last month, suggested he waited until AICO had enough supporters before bringing it to the Senate floor. “I’m working with Senator Klobuchar,” Schumer said, referring to Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and one of AICO’s most outspoken advocates. “I support these bills. I want to bring them to the floor. We have to make sure we have 60 votes.” This week he reiterated that plans to bring the bill to a votebut did not give a timeline.
But both Democratic and Republican supporters of the bill say Schumer’s caution makes no sense. “I think it’s very clear that we have the votes to pass these bills in the House and in the Senate,” Congressman David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island and author of AICO, told TIME, referring to him and smaller companion bill. “It’s high time the Majority Leader took up our bipartisan antitrust bill that cracks down on Big Tech’s anti-competitive behavior,” agreed Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in a statement to TIME.
The AICO legislation would prohibit dominant tech firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple from favoring their own products over competitors who must use their platforms to reach customers. Collected some strange bedfellows; the bill is supported by nearly every non-California Democrat and some of the most conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill, such as Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Congressman Ken Buck of Colorado. For seven months, supporters have pushed for a tight deadline to move the bill through both chambers by Aug. 8, before Congress typically goes on its summer recess and lawmakers go into full campaign mode. At this point, the likelihood of passing major legislation diminishes.
Now, those same advocates have accepted that AICO won’t come up for a vote before the recess, as all focus is on the reconciliation package that Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, announced last week. stunning much of Washington. If the AICO vote does happen this year, it is more likely to happen in September or potentially during the session that Congress will be in after Election Day. “I was hoping we’d get it done before we left for vacation in August,” Cicilline says. “I think it seems more and more difficult just because of the press of another business. But I will continue to push them, and I’m sure Senator Klobuchar will continue to push them to bring the 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 make sure Congress first passes bills that would help Democrats facing tough challenges in the midterm elections, such as the Anti-Inflation Relief Act. climate change and lower 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 burns. Both CHIPS account and on PACT Act they did it from both cameras.
“Schumer is taking care of his 2022s right now,” said a congressional aide working on the AICO bill, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak more freely about the current state of affairs. “Then he can go to the rest of the group and say, ‘I took care of them, now I take care of you.’ That’s why he’s a leader and he can make both segments happy.”
For months, lobbying groups on behalf of the big tech companies have been poured in tens of millions of dollars to submerge the legislation. There are signs that their efforts have at least raised reservations among some lawmakers. In June, four Democrats in the Senate wrote a letter to Klobuchar, expressing concern that the law would limit platforms’ ability to moderate content, thereby opening up companies like Amazon and Google to numerous frivolous lawsuits. Two of the four lawmakers, Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Ron Wyden of Oregon, face re-election this year. Other Democrats with tough races in November, such as Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, openly worried about passing AICO. Yet several polls suggest that most Americans approve of legislation to combat the tech giants. This found a July 2021 study by the Commission on the Future of Technology 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 for supporting the bill than they are about big tech firms pouring dark money into their races to support 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] it will take so much water to protect vulnerable Democrats,” says the congressional aide.
That’s part of what makes the AICO vote a tricky issue 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 filibuster.
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 the legislation told TIME. “Senator Grassley said he had more than 20 Republican votes. That’s consistent with conversations I’m having with Republican lawmakers as well. He makes no mistake in the number of the whip. Another source familiar with the process tells TIME that Schumer has not yet ordered the majority office to conduct a formal recount of the legislation. According to Grassley, however, Democrats can afford to have more than 10 defectors.
Dan Geldon, a consultant who lobbied for the bill, also predicted the legislation would pass easily if there was a vote. “If Schumer calls a vote, there will be more than enough support to pass,” Geldon, former chief of staff to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, told TIME.
House sources familiar with the process say Speaker Nancy Pelosi is waiting for the Senate to move the legislation forward before proceeding with what would be a difficult vote for some of its members, particularly in California’s delegation.
Schumer signaled earlier this year that he would schedule the vote for this summer, leading many in Congress to believe it would happen before the August recess. Now that such a vote seems unlikely, lawmakers and advocates are urging Schumer to act quickly.
“Senator Klobuchar and I worked meticulously to get our legislation ready for a vote,” Grassley said. “All the while, armies of lobbyists for the tech giants continue to mislead us about our bill. We need a secure date for a vote, and I urge Senator Schumer to set one, if not before the August recess, then this fall.”
Schumer’s suspension made him the target of many 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 the fundraiser he attended at the Capitol. Social media is also abuzz with theories that he may be dependent on 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 about what he was doing there.
“It’s an open secret that we have the votes,” Evan Greer, president of Fight for the Future, told TIME. “Schumer knows we have the votes, yet he hasn’t scheduled it. So it’s starting to raise eyebrows, and it certainly looks like Schumer might be hoping to run out of time on that.”
If the tech firms that oppose the bill can’t convince enough lawmakers to block it, delaying the vote is their next best option in the hope that Congress won’t get to it this year and Republicans get one or both back chambers in November. Congressman Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the leading candidate to replace Pelosi as speaker in the GOP-controlled House and is one of AICO’s fiercest critics in Congress.
But some AICO advocates are optimistic that Schumer is simply keeping his strategy of passing the bill close to the vest and will end up surprising them all, much like the climate and tax bills.
“I think he’s going to take it to the floor,” the congressional source said. “It can’t be that he’s going to lie publicly over and over again about this coming to the floor, let alone in front of us in private, simply because of the political hatred and fury that’s going to generate in the long term.” I can’t think of an analogy where a party leader said they were going to do something clearly and then did the opposite – and it didn’t count.”
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