Trump’s Section 230 veto threat is probably DOA. Here’s what could actually happen. - Protocol — The people, power and politics of tech
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Politics

Trump’s Section 230 veto threat is probably DOA. Here’s what could actually happen.

The president is holding military spending hostage in hopes of repealing the foundational law governing the internet.

Trump’s Section 230 veto threat is probably DOA. Here’s what could actually happen.

The next steps will hinge on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

Pay raises for service members. Sexual harassment protections for troops. Suicide prevention measures for veterans. Those are just a few of the provisions included in the National Defense ization Act, which President Trump has vowed to veto if it doesn't include a repeal of the law that underpins nearly all speech on the internet.

The president's move to hold hundreds of billions of dollars in military spending hostage is just his latest attack on Section 230, which he has blamed for Facebook and Twitter's decision to fact-check his posts. On Tuesday, a group of Senate Republicans including Senate Committee on Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker floated a series of Section 230 reforms to House Democrats in an effort find a compromise with the White House — but those were summarily shot down, according to three aides familiar with the conversations.

Democrats, and even some key Republicans, have yet to blink at the president's threat; they're committing to move forward with the defense spending bill without Scotch-taping Section 230 language onto it. "There is zero chance that Section 230 repeal will be passed in the NDAA," said one Senate aide.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone said in a statement that Trump is "holding a critical defense bill hostage in a petulant attempt to punish Twitter for fact-checking him. Our military and national security should not suffer just because Trump's ego was bruised."

That leaves only a few possible paths forward, none of which give President Trump what he wants, but some of which could leave important military spending in limbo until President-elect Biden takes office.

"If he's actually just going to veto it and not sign anything, and we don't have a veto-proof majority, it will be terrible for our national defense and terrible for troops who were looking forward to a pay raise, stronger sexual harassment and sexual assault protections, things along those lines," said one congressional aide familiar with negotiations, who described the military spending provisions in the bill.

The first path leads to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In the past, McConnell has chosen not to bring legislation to the floor that the president does not intend to sign. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during a press conference Wednesday that Trump is "serious" about his threat to veto the NDAA and plans to "put the pressure on Congress to step up on this."

One way McConnell could "step up" is by not even allowing a vote on the bill without a Section 230 repeal. But Trump's threat is emerging at a delicate period for Senate Republicans, who are facing a pair of pivotal races in Georgia that will determine whether they retain their majority. "McConnell is looking at Georgia," said Carl Szabo, vice president of the tech trade group NetChoice. "I think a lot of Republicans are recognizing the importance of getting this and the budget passed without any brouhaha that could upset their chances in Georgia."

McConnell has not yet commented on the Section 230 negotiations. "If Leader McConnell comments on this, we'll make sure to pass it along," a McConnell spokesman said in an email.

If McConnell does bring the bill to a vote, sources say it would likely pass, though the calculation is changing quickly. If it passed, President Trump could then veto the bill as promised, in which case Congress would have to override the veto with a two-thirds majority.

Some Republicans, including Rep. Adam Kinzinger, have already promised to do just that. But a veto-proof majority is hard to come by, particularly with a military spending bill that could rankle the fringes of both parties. "You typically lose a dozen or two dozen progressives who just want to cut defense spending," said the congressional aide involved in negotiations, "and you typically lose hard-line Republicans who want more defense spending or want to include things like border wall funding."

That's not to mention the diehard Trump allies in the House and Senate who came out in opposition to the bill following Trump's veto threat. "The NDAA does NOT contain any reform to Section 230 but DOES contain Elizabeth Warren's social engineering amendment to unilaterally rename bases & war memorials w/ no public input or process," tweeted Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a fervent supporter of repealing Section 230. "I cannot support it."

If Congress can't overcome the president's veto, the task of passing the NDAA would likely fall to the Biden administration. Congress would have to pass a resolution to maintain the military's current funding levels and punt the complex legislative issues until next year.

Biden has also criticized Section 230 and the large tech companies that benefit from it in the past, but it seems unlikely he would try to force a repeal in a military spending bill.

Some activists say this ordeal should serve as a reminder to Democrats who have flirted with the idea of reforming Section 230 that they could be opening up a can of worms. "I hope this shores up Democrats in recognizing just how controversial this is and how dangerous it would be to open the door to changes to Section 230 at this juncture when we have these types of attacks on it," said Evan Greer, campaign director for the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future. "We can and always should be willing to talk about what policies are right. But strategically, when you open a door in Congress to changing a law, you don't always get to control what comes out the other side."

The last path, of course, is the one in which the bill passes through Congress, and President Trump, perhaps through some closed-door dealmaking, backs down from his threats. He already seems to have dropped his threat to veto an NDAA provision that would require U.S. military bases that honor Confederate soldiers to change their names.

"It's fair to say that most members are hopeful that this is just another hollow veto threat of a must-pass bill that has been passed every year for decades," the congressional aide said.

In a statement Wednesday, House negotiators announced they had come to an agreement on a final version of the NDAA. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith and ranking member Mac Thornberry urged Congress and the White House to keep with tradition and pass the bill that they said involved months of "hard-fought negotiations" with half of the members of the House. "For 59 straight years, the NDAA has passed because members of Congress and presidents of both parties have set aside their own policy objectives and partisan preferences and put the needs of our military personnel and America's security first," they said. "The time has come to do that again."

Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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