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Washington Roundup: Catholic leaders react to Biden’s address; Congress advances TikTok bill

Figures with computers and smartphones are seen in front of TikTok logo in this Feb. 19, 2024, illustration. (OSV News illustration/Dado Ruvic, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — President Joe Biden delivered his third State of the Union address March 7, calling for the protection of democracy in the U.S. and overseas, providing further military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, expanded abortion access, and for bipartisan cooperation on immigration policy. A rebuttal by Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., was met with lackluster reviews, including from fellow Republicans.

Also in Washington the same week, lawmakers considered new restrictions on the social media platform TikTok over its ties to China as a pressure campaign by that company may have backfired.

Catholics, pro-life leaders respond to State of the Union address

Biden delivered a boisterous address, sparring at times with lawmakers on the floor, although he stumbled over some of his words on several occasions, in the course of a nearly 70-minute speech. The annual address also gave Biden an opportunity to address voter concerns over his age in what may be the largest television audience he has before the November election. More than 6 in 10 Americans who watched the address had a positive reaction to Biden’s speech, according to a CNN Poll conducted by SSRS.

Some Catholic leaders praised portions of Biden’s speech, while others, as well as pro-life groups, criticized other policy positions.

Joan F. Neal, deputy executive director and chief equity officer at Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, said in a statement, “We, too, remain concerned about the fragility of our democratic system after the insurrection of January 6, 2021.

“Democracy is under attack here in America and around the globe, and our freedoms are in jeopardy,” Neal said. “Each generation must take up the cause of freedom, so we affirm
President Biden’s call to immediately pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and to protect our country against political violence. We urge the Biden-Harris administration and our champions in Congress to continue to support and advance strong policies that protect our democracy including the sacred right to vote.”

But pro-life leaders, including Catholics, criticized Biden’s comments about expanding access to abortion through federal legislation.

Chelsey Youman, national legislative adviser for Human Coalition Action, said in a statement, “It is unconscionable that the White House and members of Congress are hijacking what should be a moment of national unity to promote the mass death of children in the womb.”

“The plight of vulnerable women seeking abortion should be off-limits for politicization, yet President Biden wants to use the killing of an innocent child with disabilities to boost his chances of reelection. This is horrifying,” she said. “Women like Kate Cox need and deserve care and support — not to be used as props for the abortion industry.”

Cox, who was a guest at the address, is a Texas mother at the center of a case concerning that state’s abortion restrictions. Cox sought permission from a judge to undergo an abortion after her unborn baby was diagnosed with trisomy 18, alleging the pregnancy also was putting her life at risk as well as her hopes for future children. The genetic condition, also known as Edwards syndrome, often leads to miscarriage and stillbirth, with a 90-95% mortality rate for babies within the first year after birth. Her attorneys said Cox was in the emergency room multiple times during her pregnancy and she eventually traveled out of state to undergo an abortion.

Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life and a Catholic, said in a statement, “President Biden’s remarks were meant to convince listeners that his administration cares for pregnant women facing difficult circumstances, but his policies communicate a very different picture.”

“His Department of Health and Human Services has proposed a rule seeking to prohibit temporary assistance to needy families (TANF) funding from going to pregnancy resource centers which serve pregnant women and families, who need such help,” she said.

She added, “The fact is that most women want to keep their children but some need support to do so. Pregnancy resource centers exist to provide life-affirming support and resources and yet are under attack from powerful politicians like President Biden who want us to believe they care about choice. In reality, those currently in power push only one choice for women: abortion, anytime and for any reason.”

Britt’s rebuttal gets lackluster reviews

Britt delivered a rebuttal to Biden’s speech from her kitchen table, criticizing the president’s record on issues such as immigration and the economy. But her delivery was panned by some on her own side of the aisle who questioned her tone of delivery, fluctuating between folksy and ominous.

The optics of placing a female senator at a kitchen table for a significant political speech were questioned by some Republican pundits.

Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Trump aide turned critic of the former president, said in a post on X that Britt “is a very impressive person … I do not understand the decision to put her in a KITCHEN for one of the most important speeches she’s ever given.”

Conservative commentator Allie Beth Stuckey wrote on X, “Ok, GOP. Never again. I know y’all were going for the relatable mom speaking in her kitchen from her heart, but it didn’t work. Just a straight, strong speech will do in the future. Thanks.”

The State of the Union rebuttal can be a thankless task, as rising stars on either side of the political aisle sometimes fall flat in their delivery. A 2013 rebuttal by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is remembered for a moment in which he paused to get a drink from a mini bottle of water. Rubio poked fun at the moment himself, tweeting an image of the water bottle later the same evening.

In her comments, Alabama’s Britt joined Republicans who have sought to distance themselves from a ruling on in vitro fertilization from that state’s Supreme Court, which found that frozen embryos qualify as unborn children under the state’s wrongful death law. Alabama lawmakers subsequently passed additional protections for IVF over the objections of the Catholic Church and some pro-life groups.

“We strongly support continued nationwide access to in vitro fertilization,” Britt told her national audience.

Although IVF is overwhelmingly popular among Americans, the artificial reproductive method is opposed by the Catholic Church on the grounds that it often involves the destruction of human embryos among other concerns.

House committee advances bill restricting TikTok

A House committee advanced a bill March 7 that would force the sale of TikTok or ban it entirely from U.S. devices if it refused, over concerns the app poses an intelligence risk given its ties to China’s government, which Chinese officials have denied.

The app reportedly prompted users to call their members of Congress to oppose the bill — but the effort appears to have backfired, as lawmakers expressed frustration with the volume and types of calls their offices received.

Politico reported lawmakers’ offices were flooded with calls from teenagers, with some conveying threats of self-harm. Some used false or euphemistic names.

“If you ban TikTok, I will kill myself,” said one caller, according to audio Politico obtained from a House GOP office.

The Washington Post reported the call volume was so high “that some offices resorted to temporarily shutting off phones.” Congressional offices frequently field important casework for their constituents on Social Security, veterans’ benefits and other issues involving federal agencies. Shutting offices’ phone lines leaves these constituents unable to reach their representatives’ offices.

The legislation was approved unanimously by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It would block TikTok in U.S. app stores unless the social media platform divests from its parent company, ByteDance, which lawmakers say has ties to the Chinese Communist Party. The bill also includes similar prohibitions for other apps “controlled by foreign adversary companies.”

Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Catholic from Wisconsin, and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., respectively chairman and ranking member of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, said in a joint statement, “Today, we are seeing why the Chinese Communist Party is so desperate to hang onto TikTok, because of its ability to target Americans and promote CCP propaganda.”

“Now, our fears are coming to fruition,” the lawmakers, who introduced the legislation, said. “Many users of TikTok today are reporting that they are being required to call their Members of Congress before accessing the app. TikTok is falsely labeling our bipartisan legislation as a ‘total ban’ of TikTok, thinking they can trick their users into unwittingly assisting their propaganda campaign. To further highlight the threats posed by the current ownership structure of TikTok and ByteDance, TikTok users are being targeted based on their location — highlighting the exact data privacy concerns that our bill seeks to address.”

The lawmakers added, “Let’s be clear: the script TikTok is forcing upon its users is a complete lie. Our bill is NOT a ban of TikTok. It’s about making sure TikTok doesn’t answer to the CCP. It’s about ensuring the Chinese government cannot weaponize the app against Americans and their government — as we are seeing happen today.”

About one-third of U.S. adults say they use TikTok, according to the Pew Research Center.

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @kgscanlon.

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