Art of the Cave: How Ukraine and TikTok Became Strange Bedfellows

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Just days ago, desperately needed aid to Ukraine was languishing in the U.S. House.

Widely supported restrictions on TikTok were dying in the U.S. Senate.

Now, both are on their way to President Joe Biden’s desk.

All it took was some creative legislating—and some mutual caving from key figures in both chambers.

Mike Johnson Came to Ukraine’s Aid. Will Democrats Come to His?

After more than a year of resistance from the hard right, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) agreed last week to allow the chamber to vote on billions of dollars of assistance to Ukraine, with the aid passing overwhelmingly with a bipartisan super-majority.

In the view of conservatives with major influence over the GOP conference, Johnson caved to the party establishment and Democrats, especially those in the U.S. Senate, where support for Ukraine aid runs broader and deeper.

At the same time they passed Ukraine aid on Saturday, though, House lawmakers attached legislation that would ban TikTok in the United States if its Chinese parent company does not sell the app within nine months—with the president having the authority to extend the time period another 90 days.

Last month, the TikTok ban won a vast majority of members in the House as a standalone bill. But the Senate seemed content to put the bill on ice amid a furious lobbying push from the company and concerns over the nature of the proposal.

When it became clear the TikTok ban would be paired with Ukraine, though, that reluctance melted away, with key senators in both parties caving on that position out of a feeling of urgency to approve Ukraine aid.

On Tuesday evening, the Senate voted to send both proposals to Biden’s desk, along with billions of dollars in military aid to Israel and Taiwan, and humanitarian assistance for Palestinians. The total amount of foreign aid being allocated is over $95 billion. The package of bills—foreign aid and TikTok ban combined—passed 79-18.

In a display of the long dead art of compromise legislating, everyone seemed to get a little bit of everything they wanted.

Everyone except for conservative Republicans, that is. Many MAGA members in both chambers are furious because they failed to secure the one thing they wanted—tougher border policies—even though they had a deal in place to do so.

Republicans Refuse to Take Yes for an Answer on the Border

After approving the last round of Ukraine aid in 2022 and then taking over the House, the GOP has insisted they would only consider further aid to the war-torn country if it were coupled with conservative immigration policies. In pursuit of that goal, Republicans stymied any attempt to pass additional funds without hard-right border provisions unpalatable to Democrats attached.

When a bipartisan group of senators crafted a deal in hopes of satisfying that demand, in February, many Republicans revolted. Even though Democrats made significant concessions on border policy, conservatives argued the deal still did not go far enough to account for billions in foreign aid. (Of course, preserving immigration as a winning campaign issue for former President Donald Trump was also part of the GOP’s political justification.)

Now, Ukraine aid and a TikTok ban—two policies that many on the far right zealously oppose or are lukewarm about, respectively—are set to be enacted into law while GOP prospects for hardline border action fade away.

It’s a deal Senate Democrats are embracing with glee.

“If you told Democrats in the beginning of this that they were going to dramatically improve their messaging on immigration and get Ukraine, Israel, and humanitarian aid done, I think we would have taken the deal,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told reporters.

Murphy—who led months of Democratic negotiations to tie foreign aid to border security—said that the widespread Senate support for a foreign aid bill was only possible after GOP lawmakers confronted enough intra-party brick walls on conservative immigration priorities.

“I think it actually was important to prove to Republicans that they didn’t want to actually marry Ukraine and immigration,” Murphy said. “That was the whole vibe of the Republican Party in the Senate, in the House, for months: ‘We’re only going to do Ukraine, if we do immigration.’”

“We gave them a great immigration proposal, and they were so mortified by the fact that they had to actually confront their unwillingness to do immigration, that they then put the votes on the board for Ukraine,” he said.

TikTok Is One Step Closer to Being Sold After House Vote

To Murphy’s point, even Senate Republicans who opposed a clean foreign aid bill in February changed their tune when this package came up. Eight Republicans—including Trump allies Sens. Katie Britt (R-AL), Tim Scott (R-SC), and Tom Cotton (R-AR)—voted on Tuesday to advance the bills, even though they offered no border enforcement provisions and simply added the TikTok ban.

Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) pointed out that even self-proclaimed “America First” firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)—who has called the whole bill “disappointing” without border policies—was complimentary of elements of the package, including the TikTok provision and Israel aid during a Sunday Fox News appearance.

“I think just about everybody can acknowledge that there’s some good stuff in this bill,” Lummis told The Daily Beast.

A similar standalone version of the TikTok policy passed the House last month with broad bipartisan backing. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sat on the proposal for weeks as Democratic lawmakers squabbled over the specifics. National security hawk Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), for one, called for increased regulation of multiple social media platforms, not just TikTok.

But even Warner has come around on the bill, telling reporters it was a positive “first step” in Big Tech reform. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) insisted that the bill would have passed in the upper chamber “pretty easily” had it come to an up-or-down vote, so it is hardly a major sacrifice for Senate Democrats.

But even supporters of the bill acknowledge the ironic make-up of the final foreign aid package. Senate Democrats were spared voting for immigration restrictions that they spent months dreading—all they had to do was permit a sale of TikTok.

“You’re going to help Ukraine—avoiding World War III. Avoiding a conflagration in the Middle East. Helping stand up against China. And TikTok? I don’t know,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) said while waving his hands to indicate the distinct funding buckets that TikTok—in his view—does not fit into.

“I’m OK with the bill, though,” he said. “It just seems weird.”

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