It could be months before the Senate takes up a TikTok bill, despite warnings about China

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WASHINGTON — A House-passed bill that could potentially ban TikTok in the U.S. won’t be taken up by the Senate anytime soon. In fact, it could take months before any TikTok-related legislation hits the floor in the Democratic-controlled chamber.

Senators emerged from a classified briefing on TikTok Wednesday saying they were highly concerned that the popular social media app — owned by China-based parent company ByteDance — poses a serious national security threat to the U.S. and its citizens. But key senators appear to be in no hurry to take up the House-passed TikTok bill and are working on their own legislation to regulate the app.

Senate Commerce Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who organized Wednesday’s briefing along with Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said after the closed-door meeting she might want to team with Warner again to hold a joint, public hearing about TikTok.

But such a hearing would happen after Congress returns from its two-week Easter recess that is slated to begin next week. Pressed why she didn’t share the same urgency as House members, who rushed to pass the bill last week with a lopsided, bipartisan 352-65​​ vote, Cantwell replied: “I think it’s important to get it right.”

Congress is full of people who “promote things just to promote them, but they don’t have the cause and effect that we need,” Cantwell told reporters. “We need intent here, and the intent is we want to stop the nefarious bad actors from doing deleterious things in the United States that might harm U.S. citizens, U.S. government or U.S. military.”

“So we’re gonna do that. We’re gonna get it done. And we’re not going to take forever,” she said, noting that she will meet with the House bill’s author, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., on Thursday.

Warner added that he is determined to move a TikTok bill this year: “If we don’t, I think we’ve missed a huge opportunity.”

Intelligence officials and House and Senate lawmakers in both parties have warned that the Chinese Communist Party has used the video-sharing app to access data from its 170 million American users and control what types of videos they see. They’ve also said TikTok could be used to interfere in the upcoming presidential election. TikTok has denied that the Chinese government controls the app and pushed back against suggestions that China accesses U.S. user data.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., appears to be giving Cantwell and other committee chairs space to draft their own legislation rather than forcing a quick floor vote on the House bill. Other Democrats also are backing Cantwell’s go-slow approach, including those on her committee.

“We’ve got a ways to go,” said Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., a Commerce Committee member who said the Senate will produce its own bill.

“There are other bills; there are other approaches. And I’m open to all of that,” including the House bill, said a second Commerce member, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.

“I know how strong of a chair Maria is, and when the chair wants to lean in on something, the chair has support from the caucus to lean in,” added Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., another Commerce member. “I support Chair Cantwell. She is the chair of the committee of jurisdiction. And she is smart and capable, and she has an incredible team.”

Supporters of the House bill argue it’s not an outright ban. The Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act would force ByteDance to divest or sell TikTok 180 days after U.S. officials deem it a national security threat. If Bytedance failed to do so, TikTok would be banned from all online app stores and web-hosting services in the U.S.

President Joe Biden has vowed to sign the bill into law should it reach his desk, and White House spokesman John Kirby urged the Senate to “move swiftly” to pass the House bill.

“It needs to happen soon — as soon as possible,” House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said.

The House overwhelmingly passed the legislation following an all-member classified briefing about TikTok. The Senate briefing Wednesday in the basement of the Capitol was led by officials from the Justice Department, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“My reaction to this briefing is that TikTok is a gun aimed at Americans’ heads,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a former state attorney general who urged that the information from the briefing be declassified for the American public. “The Chinese communists are weaponizing information, but they are constantly, surreptitiously collecting from 170 million Americans and potentially aiming that information, using it through algorithms at the core of American democracy.”

The Senate’s approach to TikTok, he said, will be “very deliberate but not delayed” with the election on the horizon.

Republicans left the same briefing expressing urgency. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the top Republican on the Commerce panel, said he is urging Cantwell and their committee to mark up the House TikTok bill “expeditiously.”

“The precise language of this bill is still very much open to discussion. I think members on both sides may have amendments, may have suggestions for how to alter the language,” Cruz said. “But I’ll tell you, we have a full hearing room in the classified briefing and there was deep concern about the threat from TikTok from both sides of the aisle.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, also spelled out what was at stake by not acting on TikTok.

“ByteDance is a Chinese company. It doesn’t matter who its shareholders are, doesn’t matter who the CEO is. It doesn’t matter how many of the board members are not Chinese. Every technology company in China under Chinese law has to do whatever the Chinese government tells them to do,” Rubio said after the briefing. 

“That algorithm, in a moment of conflict or on an ongoing basis, can be altered in order to drive certain messages to divide Americans, to destabilize our politics, to influence policymakers to denigrate policymakers to tear our country apart. And China clearly wants to achieve that,” Rubio said.

Fighting for its survival in the U.S., TikTok has mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign, now purely focused on the Senate. Users have been receiving push notifications and pop-ups on their mobile devices, urging them to call their senators and tell them to vote no on a ban.

“The House of Representatives just voted to ban TikTok, which means millions of unique communities just like yours could be shut down. If the Senate votes to ban TikTok, this means you could lose your right to self-expression and the communities you love,” said one message.

“Tell your Senator how important TikTok is for inspiration and connection you have with your community. Ask them to vote no on the TikTok ban. #KeepTikTok,” said another.

Some members have said the fervency of the campaign proves that their concerns about the app’s power are valid, while at least one TikTok user took things too far. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., tweeted Wednesday audio of a voice message his office had received from a TikTok supporter saying, “I’ll shoot you and find you and cut you into pieces.”

“TikTok’s misinformation campaign is pushing people to call their members of Congress, and callers like this who communicate threats against elected officials could be committing a federal crime,” Tillis said. “The Communist-Chinese aligned company is proving just how dangerous their current ownership is. Great work, TikTok.”

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