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Bipartisan opposition to banning TikTok emerges on Capitol Hill

Among the opponents: Republican Rand Paul blocked a GOP-backed ban on the Senate floor, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a video on TikTok to object to a prohibition.
Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Divisions are emerging as members of both parties on Capitol Hill come out against banning TikTok, creating new challenges for lawmakers pushing to prohibit use of the popular Chinese-owned app in the U.S.

When Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., sought unanimous consent to pass his bill to ban TikTok on Wednesday, fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky objected and scuttled his effort.

Paul rejected Hawley's argument that TikTok should be prohibited because its ownership is answerable to the Chinese Communist Party, calling a ban unconstitutional and politically unwise.

"If Republicans want to continuously lose elections for generations, they should pass this bill to ban TikTok, a social media app used by 150 million people, primarily young Americans," Paul said. "Have faith that our desire for freedom is strong enough to survive a few dance videos."

Hawley was aghast.

"I have never before heard on this floor a defense of the right to spy," he responded. "I didn’t realize that the First Amendment contained a right to espionage."

The intraparty clash on the Senate floor reflects emerging divisions within the Republican and Democratic parties as TikTok ramps up its lobbying efforts to stave off a ban.

Apart from Hawley’s bill, separate legislation led by Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., would prohibit TikTok in the U.S. And a broader White House-backed bill by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and John Thune, R-S.D., would give the commerce secretary power to bar foreign apps based on threat assessments, including TikTok.

Leaders in both chambers have expressed support for some sort of crackdown but haven't gotten behind specific legislation.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who has said he supports a ban, tweeted Sunday: “The House will be moving forward with legislation to protect Americans from the technological tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he shares “serious security concerns with TikTok.” “I think that we’re going to have to look at this very, very carefully. And I think the Senate will,” he told reporters.

Democratic fissures over TikTok

Three camps are emerging in the Democratic Party. A group of progressives firmly opposes a ban. Another group is calling for a broader online privacy bill that could deal with foreign tech. Another is pushing for an outright ban.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the progressive star, went viral this week with her first TikTok video, in which she spoke out against banning the app, saying that it would be "unprecedented" and that doing so "just doesn't feel right to me."

"The solution here is not to ban an individual company but to actually protect Americans from this kind of egregious data harvesting that companies can use without your significant ability to say no," Ocasio-Cortez said in the video, sitting at her desk.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Ocasio-Cortez’s fellow “squad” member, came out Tuesday against banning TikTok. They join a trio of Democrats — Reps. Jamaal Bowman of New York, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Robert Garcia of California — who stood with TikTok creators last week speaking out against a ban.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois., a senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, is aligned with the second camp. She said she doesn't support narrowly targeting TikTok and instead wants a "comprehensive online privacy bill," something several Democrats on the committee brought up at a tense hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Chew last week.

"A lot of what it does is what all Big Tech companies are doing right now," she said, mentioning Facebook and Instagram. "Just prohibiting TikTok would leave the others off the hook."

"The difference with TikTok is the relationship with the Chinese government," she added. But she said she's considering whether TikTok's "Project Texas," to keep U.S. data stored in the U.S., can address concerns about parent company ByteDance's obligation under Chinese law to do the bidding of the government if asked.

"I don't know what's true," Schakowsky said. “We need to know more information about — is there a relationship that is changing? Is there a problem? And we don’t know yet.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who questioned Chew at last week’s hearing, also backed a comprehensive approach.

“I don’t think this is just a TikTok problem,” Dingell said. “We have to identify what all the issues are. For me, this just strengthens the strong need for privacy legislation. Europe has done it. Other countries, other continents have done it. We need to do it.”

Waiting and seeing

TikTok users are beginning to contact their members of Congress since Chew’s appearance on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., whose district includes Arizona State University, among the country’s largest colleges, said his office has had an influx of calls and emails from young constituents urging him to oppose a ban.

“We’re getting outreach from college students who are concerned about entrepreneurs that they’re aware of who do a lot of business on TikTok. They’re reaching out to me expressing concern about losing that as a marketing tool,” Stanton said.

“We listen to everybody,” he added. “I haven’t made a decision. I’ll look at all the bills that are coming through.”

A recent poll by the firm SocialSphere Inc. found that younger voters are torn about TikTok, too. Gen Z voters oppose a ban, while millennials support it.

Asked about Democratic critics of a TikTok ban, Warner told NBC News that he has also been working on establishing "rules of the road" for U.S. tech companies.

"With some of the American platforms — at the end of the day, the Communist Party of China cannot demand access to their information," he said. "There is a whole separate set of concerns that are why we're doing this on a national security basis."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said in an interview that "if this was an American company, I'd be real nervous about a complete ban." But he said that it's "a foreign company" and that he wants to "stop the crazy things that are going on."

"But I haven't looked at the specific legislation," he added.

Asked about Paul's objections to barring TikTok over the First Amendment, Jordan said he shares the concerns and wants to "see the language" of any bill.

Thune said there is a time crunch to pass a TikTok bill.

"I think there is," he said. "I think it could move very quickly. If we get a markup in Senate Commerce Committee, I think we can probably get it across the floor and the Senate. And then the question is can we figure out a path forward with the House to get something on the president's desk."