Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has thrown a wrench into Congressional approval of an increase in government stimulus relief checks from $600 to $2,000. The House voted overwhelmingly on Monday to increase the payments, as President Trump had advocated for. Instead of voting on the House bill, however, McConnell blocked it and instead introduced a new bill tying higher stimulus payments to Section 230’s full repeal, according to Verge, which obtained a copy of the bill’s text.
It’s a tangled web, but the move is tied to Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes $740 billion in defense spending for the upcoming government fiscal year. “No one has worked harder, or approved more money for the military, than I have,” Trump said in a statement about the veto, claiming falsely that the military “was totally depleted” when he took office in 2017. “Your failure to terminate the very dangerous national security risk of Section 230 will make our intelligence virtually impossible to conduct without everyone knowing what we are doing at every step.”
Section 230 has nothing to do with military intelligence; it’s a 1996 law designed to protect Internet platforms. At its highest level, the short snippet of law basically does two things. First, it grants Internet service providers, including online platforms, broad immunity from being held legally liable for content third-party users share. Second, it grants those same services legal immunity from the decisions they make around content moderation—no matter how much or how little they choose to do.
As we previously reported, Trump has been railing against Section 230 all summer and fall, even signing an executive order directing various federal agencies to limit social media’s “unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit” or otherwise manipulate user content. But Congress declined to consider the Justice Department’s proposed rewrite of the law.
It appears to be personal for Trump: he resents Twitter in particular, ever since the site first appended a mild fact-checking link to a tweet of his containing election misinformation in May, something which has become a common occurrence as the president stews over his November electoral loss. As Ars’ Kate Cox pointed out last week, “In short, the more Trump claimed without evidence that all mail-in voting is fraudulent (it’s not) or that President-elect Joe Biden’s somehow ‘stole’ the election (he won fairly), the more fact-checking labels Twitter appended to his posts.”
The NDAA usually moves through Congress with broad bipartisan support, and this year’s edition was no exception. Both chambers supported the bill by wide, veto-proof margins—the House approved by a vote of 335 to 78, and the Senate approved it 84 to 13. But Trump said in early December he would veto the bill if it did not include an outright repeal of Section 230. On December 23, two days before Christmas, he made good on that threat.
The section 230 thing continues to just make me laugh…repealing section 230 would be a disaster for Trump. It would mean his tweets would be taken down left and right. Same for many of his supporters.
All of the talk about censorship? Wait til section 230 goes. https://t.co/EwKIhi4xWw
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) December 29, 2020
The House leadership was prepared for this. On Monday, the House voted to override Donald Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by a vote of 322 to 87—easily exceeding the required two-thirds mark. The measure then went to the Senate, where it must also pass by the same margin to overcome Trump’s opposition. The Senate is expected to also vote to override the veto sometime in the next few days.
So what does this have to do with McConnell’s latest political maneuvering? Think of it as a move to appease Trump with regard to Section 230, while also effectively ensuring that the $2,000 increase in stimulus checks will never pass in the Senate. “During this process, the president highlighted three additional issues of national significance he would like to see Congress tackle together,” McConnell said in a floor statement Tuesday afternoon. “This week, the Senate will begin a process to bring these three priorities into focus.”
But that’s disingenuous at best. As Deadline Hollywood’s Ted Johnson notes, “By tying the payments to another Trump priority—the repeal of Section 230—McConnell is likely making the package unsuitable to a number of Democrats in the Senate and the House. Although politicians of both parties have expressed a desire to modify Section 230, it’s a whole other matter to repeal it entirely.”
“Senator McConnell knows how to make $2,000 survival checks reality and he knows how to kill them,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement Tuesday. “Will Senate Republicans go along with Sen. McConnell’s cynical gambit or will they push him to give a vote on the standalone [bill]?”