Ten people who know about the situation told POLITICO that a bipartisan legislative effort to rein in the country’s largest tech companies is facing new opposition from a group of Senate Democrats who say the measure could hurt their chances of keeping their slim majority.
Democratic leaders are pushing for a vote on the bill by the summer in order to pass what has become a key part of the party’s antitrust agenda. This is where the internal opposition comes in.
The American Innovation and Choice Online Act, S. 2992 (117), which is being led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), would make it illegal for big tech companies like Amazon and Google to favor their own products over those of their competitors. For instance, the law would make it illegal for Amazon to put its own private-label products ahead of competing products on its e-commerce platform. The bill is the most serious attempt in years to tighten control over the tech industry. It was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year with support from both parties.
Yet, in the days since Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Klobuchar that he would hold a floor vote as soon as next month, several Democratic senators have privately told Schumer and other Democratic offices that they are very hesitant to vote for the bill, especially with a midterm election coming up soon.
Big tech senate democrats:
Tech lobbyists have said that the bill could hurt popular services like Google Docs and Amazon Prime. And lawmakers who are up for re-election are growing more worried that the big bill is too controversial for an election year and would take up time that Democrats should be using to address voters’ main concerns.
One Senate aide said, “We should be focusing on things that will help consumers deal with rising prices.” This person called the bill a “pet project” that wouldn’t help the Senate in any way. “No one can understand why it would be important.”
On a caucus-wide call with Democratic chiefs of staff last week, a few senior aides, including Sen. Maggie Hassan’s (D-N.H.) chief of staff Marc Goldberg, voiced concerns, according to five people with knowledge of the situation. They and others talked about conversations that were not meant to be public. Hassan is running for re-election this fall in a very close race. Goldberg used the tech antitrust bill as an example of a vote that could be controversial that senators shouldn’t have to make just a few months before the midterms.
His comment led to a tense back-and-forth with Doug Calidas, who is Klobuchar’s chief of staff. Calidas defended the bill and said it would help senators in swing states get re-elected, not hurt them. A random sample of voters in Georgia, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Arizona who took part in a poll that came out this week showed that about 76% of them support the American Innovation and Choice Online Act. Several other recent polls have shown that most voters agree that tech companies should be regulated, though they often don’t put this issue ahead of inflation and job loss.
A few other people on the call, like the acting chief of staff for Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), who is also running for reelection this year, also voiced concerns about the Democrats’ legislative agenda before the midterms, though not all of them directly criticized the antitrust bill.
Supporters of the bill said that the big tech companies, which have spent tens of millions of dollars to fight against it, were to blame for the last-minute worries of some Democrats.
Dan Golden, a former chief of staff to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass. ), who has led the charge to break up the biggest tech companies, said, “Whenever a corporate accountability bill gains steam, concern trolling heats up, and some members try to block a vote because they don’t want to upset powerful companies.” “But it’s hard to believe that a bill like this, which is popular with both parties, would hurt any of the re-elects. The polls are very clear on this point.”
Representatives for Klobuchar, Hassan, and Bennet did not want to say anything about what was said during the off-the-record call.
Klobuchar’s office released a new version of the bill late Wednesday night. It was changed to address some of the concerns she’s heard from politicians on both sides of the aisle.
The worry going on behind the scenes could make it harder for the bill to get a vote on the floor, which would hurt the long-term goal of Democrats to improve oversight of the few companies that control the tech industry.
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Klobuchar, who is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Antitrust and Competition Subcommittee, has led the party’s efforts to limit the power of big tech for years. She has put together a large package of reforms that are aimed at what is said to be anti-competitive behavior by the biggest companies in the industry.
She has worked closely with David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the chair of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, to find a way for the bill to pass in both chambers.
Klobuchar and Cicilline’s fight against monopolies was also backed by the Biden administration, which promised to look more closely at the tech giants and how they compete. In March, the Justice Department said that their bill could make global markets more dynamic, which was something they liked. As a staff member on the Judiciary Committee, Lina Khan helped write the House version of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act. She now heads the Federal Trade Commission for President Joe Biden.
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