Biden want to protect kids from “Big Tech.” Could he and Hawley find common ground?

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

As President Joe Biden made a pitch for bipartisanship with a divided Congress during his State of the Union address Tuesday, he may have found an unlikely ally for one of his policy goals — Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley.

Toward the end of his more than hourlong speech laying out his accomplishments over the past year and his agenda for the next one, Biden said he wanted Congress to do more to curb the data collecting abilities of technology companies and the power that comes with it.

“It’s time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online,” Biden said. “Ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us.”

Before the speech, Hawley told NBC News that he wants to make 16 the minimum legal age for people to use social media, as part of a larger agenda he hopes to pursue in an effort to protect children from social media.

But Hawley’s political capital — and his actual willingness to work with Biden — is uncertain. When asked about Biden’s message of finding unity, Hawley dismissed it as a political move.

“He’s a very divisive figure,” Hawley said. “He’s governed very divisively.“

Hawley, who drew harsh rebukes over his role in objecting to the certification of the 2020 presidential election, has been a frequent critic of the Biden administration.

The Missouri Republican has actively blocked some of Biden’s nominees to high level positions and skipped last year’s speech because he refused to get tested for COVID-19 to attend. There was no testing rule in effect for this year’s speech, which Hawley attended.

But he’s also talked about taking on big technology companies and supports Lina Khan, Biden’s chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission who has written about the need to break up monopolies in the tech industry.

The path for Biden to pass substantial legislation got more difficult in November, after Republicans won a narrow majority in the U.S. House. Already, lawmakers have expressed concern that Congress will be able to pass the necessary bills to keep the government running — like raising the debt ceiling — let alone laws to address some of the issues facing Americans.

Even as Biden made overtures to bipartisanship, he included calls for Congress to pass key parts of the Democratic Party’s agenda.

He called for Congress to pass legislation to codify Roe v. Wade, noting that more than a dozen states have enacted abortion bans since last year’s Supreme Court decision. Missouri was the first state in the nation to enact such a ban. And he called for Congress to strengthen anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans, particularly transgender youth, as state legislatures, including Missouri and Kansas, weigh a slew of bills targeting the community.

The push and pull between the two parties was on full display throughout the night, as Republicans shouted and chided Biden during some of his more blatant appeals for their support before turning around and applauding him minutes later.

Biden promises action on fentanyl, calls for insulin price cap

Throughout his speech, Biden homed in on some issues that has both Republicans and Democrats looking for solutions, like finding solutions to surging fentanyl overdoses.

“Let’s launch a major surge to stop fentanyl production, sale, and trafficking, with more drug detection machines to inspect cargo and stop pills and powder at the border,” Biden said, after talking about a 20-year-old who died from a fentanyl overdose after years of being addicted to painkillers.

But even as he attempted to focus on an issue that appealed to both parties, Republicans were reticent to give him praise. As he talked about his desire to address overdose deaths, Republicans shouted, “Border.” One member said, “It’s your fault.”

Overdose deaths decreased across the country by 1% between August 2021 and August 2022, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, but they increased in both Kansas and Missouri. That’s after overdose deaths have soared in both states between 2019 and 2021, with Kansas seeing a 72% increase and Missouri seeing a 36% increase.

Fentanyl has quickly become one of the leading drugs at the root of overdose deaths. The drug was originally developed to help cancer patients manage their pain and is extremely potent — it’s 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Overdoses from synthetic opioids, the category that includes fentanyl, made up 64.3% of overdose deaths in Kansas in 2020. Non-heroin opioids, the category Missouri uses that includes fentanyl, made up 69% of the overdose deaths in the state in 2021.

“Just in our region it has been devastating,” said Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas. “And I think there’s just a lot of people that don’t understand what’s going on.”

Biden’s proposal focused heavily on actions his administration can take to prevent the drug from getting to the country in the first place. The White House said his administration would purchase 123 large scale scanners to check passenger and cargo vehicles for drugs when they cross the border. The administration wants to work with commercial package companies to help them stop packages that contain drugs.

He has called on Congress to re-approve a bill that allows for tougher penalties against people who sell drugs, by including “fentanyl related substances” as Schedule I drugs, meaning they’re subject to strict regulation.

The Biden administration said it wants to increase funding to help states purchase naloxone — also known by its brand name Narcan, which can help prevent overdoses — something Davids said was desperately needed to help avoid unnecessary deaths.

“I think we’re at a crisis state here and I think we definitely need to be seeing it not just from the Congress but also from the administration,” Davids said.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, said White House action on fentanyl is overdue.

“We’re trying to put our finger in the dikes,” Marshall said. “In Kansas now probably two people are dying every day from it. We’re giving Narcan 10, 12, 14 times every day in Kansas. But it all starts with border security. So I hope we can do something.”

Republicans like Marshall have used the rise in fentanyl overdoses to highlight issues at the southern border. Last year, Marshall made a trip to Texas and talked about how border patrol agents are so overwhelmed by people trying to get into the country illegally that they aren’t able to focus on preventing drugs from coming into the country.

Last Congress, he introduced a bill aimed at social media companies, asking them to turn over data about people who use their platforms to sell drugs. He named the bill after Cooper Davis, a Johnson County teen who overdosed on a fentanyl-laced pill that he believed to be Percocet.

While Biden’s speech did not include a reference to his legislation, Marshall said it would need to be included in a comprehensive package.

Earlier in the speech, Biden discussed the cost of life-saving prescription medicines, such as insulin for people with diabetes. He called on Congress to put a $35 dollar cap on the price of insulin, a policy where he’ll have support from Hawley. The Missouri senator was the only Republican who stood up to applaud for the portion of the speech.

The proposal has widespread support among Democrats, but Republicans have been more divided. Hawley broke with his party’s leadership and voted with the Democrats last year to keep a provision in a spending bill that would have capped the price at $35.

“I think it’s awfully hard to oppose,” Hawley said before the speech. “Just try to explain to folks who are medically dependent on this drug, which has not gotten more expensive to make.”

The provision ultimately failed and Congress was only able to cap prices for people on Medicare and Medicaid. Hawley said that if a proposal capping the price of insulin for people on private insurance came to a vote, it would pass.

Guests highlight push for police reform

A month after Memphis police killed 29-year-old Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop, Biden called on Congress to pass laws to increase accountability for police officers. Body camera footage showed several officers viciously beating Nichols.

Nichols’ parents were guests of first lady Jill Biden and sat a row in front of her. When Biden mentioned them in his speech, members of both parties gave them a standing ovation.

“Imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law,” Biden said. “Imagine having to worry whether your son or daughter will come home from walking down the street or playing in the park or just driving their car.”

Michael Brown Sr. was among the people in the crowd. Brown is the father of Michael Brown, who was killed by police in 2014, sparking protest in Ferguson that attracted national attention.

Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, invited Brown, who started a nonprofit aimed at helping the fathers of people who have been killed by police.

Bush, who was an organizer during the Ferguson protests, was among members of the Congressional Black Caucus who invited the family members of victims of police brutality. The invitations are part of a larger push in Congress to increase police reform.

“Something good must come of this,” Biden said quoting Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells.

In a phone call with reporters before the speech, Bush acknowledged that it would be difficult to pass police reform with Republicans in control of the House.

“We can spend the next two years really trying to mobilize for when we take the House back,” Bush said.

Davids invited Jessica Kidd, 30, from Overland Park to highlight efforts to increase the number of women truck drivers and call attention to Johnson County Community College’s commercial drivers license program.

Kidd, who was visiting the Capitol for the first time, said she hopes her success in the program will help other women overcome any stigma associated with trucking.

“It’s the stigma of women, they’re providers, they stay at home, they take care of the family, they take care of the kids and that they’ll be gone for weeks or months at a time,” Kidd said. “I think that stigma around that alone hurts women that get into trucking.”