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Senate overwhelmingly passes aid bill that could ban TikTok in the US

The vote came after months of debate over how the United States should be involved in international affairs.
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Posted at 4:45 PM, Apr 23, 2024

The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to pass a $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan that would also start the clock on a potential ban of social media app TikTok in the U.S. if its Chinese owner ByteDance does not sell the platform within one year's time.

The vote sends the measure to President Biden for signature after months of delays and contentious internal debate over how involved the United States should be abroad. President Biden has indicated he supports the TikTok ban and would sign a bill that includes it.

For years, lawmakers and administration officials have expressed concerns that Chinese authorities could force ByteDance to hand over U.S. user data, or influence Americans by suppressing or promoting certain content on TikTok.

“Congress is not acting to punish ByteDance, TikTok or any other individual company," Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell said. "Congress is acting to prevent foreign adversaries from conducting espionage, surveillance, maligned operations, harming vulnerable Americans, our servicemen and women, and our U.S. government personnel.”

Opponents of the bill say the Chinese government could easily get information on Americans in other ways, including through commercial data brokers that traffic in personal information. The foreign aid package includes a provision that makes it illegal for data brokers to sell or rent “personally identifiable sensitive data” to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran or entities in those countries. But it has encountered some pushback, including from the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the language is written too broadly and could sweep in journalists and others who publish personal information.

Many opponents of the TikTok measure argue the best way to protect U.S. consumers is through implementing a comprehensive federal data privacy law that targets all companies regardless of their origin. They also note the U.S. has not provided public evidence that shows TikTok sharing U.S. user information with Chinese authorities, or that Chinese officials have ever tinkered with its algorithm.

The TikTok logo is seen on a mobile phone in front of a computer screen which displays the TikTok home screen.

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Meanwhile, the bill includes $61 billion for Ukraine that comes as the war-torn country desperately needs new firepower and as Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up his attacks. Ukrainian soldiers have struggled to hold the front lines as Russia has seized the momentum on the battlefield and gained significant territory.

President Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday the U.S. will send badly needed air defense weaponry as soon as the legislation is passed. The House approved the package Saturday in a series of four votes, sending it back to the Senate for final approval.

The legislation also will send $26 billion in wartime assistance to Israel and humanitarian relief to citizens of Gaza, and $8 billion to counter China in Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific.

The foreign aid portion of the bill is similar to what the Senate passed in February with some minor changes and additions, including the TikTok bill and a stipulation that $9 billion of the economic assistance to Ukraine is in the form of "forgivable loans."

Opening the Senate Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the coming vote was "six months in the making."

"Let us not keep our friends around the world waiting for a moment longer," Schumer said.

The package has had broad congressional support since President Biden first requested the money last summer. But congressional leaders had to navigate strong opposition from a growing number of conservatives who question U.S. involvement in foreign wars and argue that Congress should be focused instead on the surge of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The growing fault line in the GOP between those conservatives who are skeptical of the aid and the more traditional, "Reagan Republicans" who strongly support it may prove to be career-defining for the two top Republican leaders.

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, who has made the Ukraine aid a top priority, said last month that he would step down from leadership after becoming increasingly distanced from many in his conference on the Ukraine aid and other issues. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, who put the bills on the floor after praying for guidance, faces threats of an ouster after a majority of Republicans voted against the aid to Ukraine.

McConnell has made clear that stopping Putin is important enough for him to stake his political capital.

"The national security of the United States depends on the willingness of its leaders to build, sustain, and exercise hard power," McConnell said after House passage Saturday, adding, "I make no apology for taking these linked threats seriously or for urging the Biden administration and my colleagues in Congress to do the same."

On Tuesday morning, McConnell said the Senate faces a test, "and we must not fail it."

Johnson said after the House passage that "we did our work here, and I think history will judge it well."

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a longtime GOP hawk who voted against it in February because it wasn't paired with legislation to stem migration at the border, praised Johnson after the vote and indicated he would vote for it this time. "The idea that the United States will be safer if we pull the plug on our friends and allies overseas is wrong," he said on X.

The revised House package also included several Republican priorities that were acceptable to Democrats to get the bill passed. Those include proposals that allow the U.S. to seize frozen Russian central bank assets to rebuild Ukraine; impose sanctions on Iran, Russia, China and criminal organizations that traffic fentanyl; and potentially ban TikTok in the U.S. if the owner, ByteDance Ltd., doesn't sell. That bill has wide bipartisan support in the House and Senate.