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Despite growing support in Congress for a TikTok ban, Hawley fails to force his bill forward

By Daniel Desrochers Kansas City Star

The two lone wolves of the Republican Senate conference faced off against each other Wednesday as Sen. Josh Hawley attempted to fast track his bill to ban TikTok and was blocked by Sen. Rand Paul.

There is growing bipartisan support for banning TikTok, a popular social media app used by more than 150 million Americans, amid concerns that the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, could be used to spy on Americans.

As the Biden administration remains in negotiations with TikTok about security measures, a process that has taken years, Congress has become impatient. There has been growing momentum on Capitol Hill to address the issue as FBI Director Christopher Wray has warned about the potential the app has for spying on Americans. The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, has called on ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a potential ban.

But Hawley, a Missouri Republican, has spurned a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would give the Biden administration the ability to ban the app and has remained steadfast in saying Congress should just ban it outright.

On Wednesday, he attempted a legislative move typically used for noncontroversial bills that would allow the bill to pass the Senate so long as no member objected. It’s a tactic that allows a senator to largely bypass the grueling legislative process of building a coalition of support and bypasses the traditional path a bill takes through committee

Hawley’s used this method before – last year, he was able to use the method to pass a bill banning TikTok from federal devices. That bill was later added to a larger, end-of-year spending bill that passed. He said he had to try it because TikTok is lobbying Congress to slow down efforts to ban it.

This time it didn’t work. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, stood up to object. Paul, whose politics have a libertian bent, said if the U.S. banned TikTok, it would be censoring Americans. He said there were two clear reasons for him not to support the bill – it would limit the speech of Americans, and that it would run afoul of rules that prevent a piece of legislation that declares a company guilty of a crime.

“We should beware of people who peddle fear,” Paul said. “We should beware of people who peddle half truths.”

Much of Paul’s argument centered around the freedom of Americans to watch dance videos, which later prompted Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, to say no one was attempting to ban “booty videos.”

But Paul pointed out many American social media companies are collecting similar data to TikTok.

He said the Republican Party would lose a generation of voters in banning the app – an argument that has also been used by Democrats who have opposed a TikTok ban, given the app’s young audience.

“You don’t like TikTok? Quit using them,” Paul said. “But don’t disenfranchise 150 million Americans who are using a social media app.”

Hawley portrayed the company as a national security threat, using language that has become common around the Capitol, that the app can be used by the Chinese Communist Party to gather information on Americans, because the company is subject to Chinese laws that can be used to force it to turn over data.

“The problem with TikTok is not the videos on the app,” Hawley said. “The problem with TikTok is that it’s a backdoor for the Chinese Communist Party.”

At times, the debate was reminiscent of arguments from the 1950s, with Paul saying several times he opposes Communism, but he doesn’t support the tactic of banning a social media company, or handing the government more power over social media companies.

Hawley’s inability to pass his bill Wednesday doesn’t mean the end of the effort to ban TikTok.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified in front of a House committee last week in an effort to combat the growing calls to ban the app. But both Republicans and Democrats offered blistering rebukes of the app, expressing concerns about the amount of data it collects.

While TikTok is known for its algorithm that keeps users glued to their phones and has launched the careers of social media influencers, it’s not the only app that collects user data. Some members of Congress, like Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, have worked for years on a data privacy law in attempt to limit how much information the social media giants can collect.

But while data privacy legislation may be stalled, there’s increasing attention on TikTok. Last week, influencers came to the Capitol to push back against calls to ban the app, saying it helped them grow their business in a news conference sponsored by three progressive House Democrats.

“This is important,” Rubio said. “It deserves the attention that it’s starting to get.”