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White House, Congress push to get tech antitrust bills over the finish line

BY: JOSH SISCO | 12/16/2022 11:28 AM EST

The White House has been meeting with Congressional Democrats and other supporters of tech-focused antitrust legislation over the past several weeks, trying to find a way to pass several major bills in the waning days of this Congress.

While the White House has said it supports tech antitrust legislation, bill supporters say it has yet to articulate a specific plan to help push the bills through the Senate, according to people with knowledge of the meetings. Supporters say the president’s backing for the bills is a key element for passing them.

Most recently, a pair of Democrats pressed the Biden administration to throw its weight behind the measures — including a bill that would bar Google, Apple, Meta and Amazon from favoring their own products over the competition.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) — who respectively chair the Senate and House antitrust subcommittees — met on Dec. 5 over Zoom with a number of senior White House officials, according to three people with knowledge of the meeting.

Those present at the meeting included Deputy White House Chief of Staff Bruce Reed, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, his deputy Bharat Ramamurti, Tim Wu, who heads up competition policy for the NEC, and Louisa Terrell, the White House director of legislative affairs, the people said. And smaller tech companies supporting the bills — including Yelp — also met with Wu and Terrell last month, according to a person familiar with the matter.

On the agenda were the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and Open App Markets Act, which supporters are hoping to attach to an end-of-year spending package. The tech legislation is being discussed as part of the bigger spending bill.

At the November meeting Terrell said that she believes at least 60 senators support the bills, and backers say they have a shot at the end of this Congress.

Both Klobuchar and Cicilline pushed the White House at the more recent meeting to convey the importance of the bills to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who so far has not scheduled the measures for floor consideration or publicly supported including them in the year-end spending package.

A spokesperson for Schumer referred to a previous statement in which the Senator expressed support for AICOA and said he is “working with Senator Klobuchar to get the 60 votes.”

A White House spokesperson reiterated its support, but declined to name the specific bills at issue. “We continue to work closely with the sponsors of tech antitrust legislation. Promoting competition—including in the tech sector—is a core part of the President’s economic agenda. The President has long called for fundamental legislative reforms to address these issues, including tech antitrust legislation. There is bipartisan support for tech antitrust legislation, and we hope Congress acts.”

Still, negotiations are underway to include both AICOA and OAMA in the omnibus bill. In a brief interview on Thursday Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor of both bills, said he is optimistic that talks will lead to their inclusion in the spending bill. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a sponsor of the app store bill, said she is working to get it in the omnibus.

Cicilline and Klobuchar told the White House that the bills are important to President Joe Biden’s expansive competition policy agenda, and his promises to rein in the power of large tech companies. They also noted the need for urgency, given that the rapidly dwindling lame duck was likely the last chance to pass the measures, the people said.

In a statement Cicilline praised the president’s support, and put the onus on Schumer. “President Biden is leading the most pro-competition administration in a generation and understands how urgent it is to pass these bills,” he said. “We need Senator Schumer to follow through on his promise to bring these bills to the Senate floor.”

A spokesperson for Klobuchar criticized the largest tech companies’ “treatment of local news outlets, consumer and privacy rights, [and] competition in online marketplaces. We continue to work with the White House to try to get this done.”

AICOA would block Amazon, Meta, Google and Apple from favoring their own products and services over competitors who also rely on their platforms, while the app store bill would force Apple and Google to allow competing app stores and in-app payment systems on their mobile phones. Google currently allows competing app stores on Android phones, but critics of the companies say the company has moved in recent years to restrict competitors from operating competing services on its phones.

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