The Future of Broadband

The Republican Party Is Divided On Net Neutrality

Some conservatives want to pursue a legislative compromise. Others are urging more extreme means—and holding the FCC’s funding hostage is not out of the question.

Senate Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security Subcommittee member Sen. John Thune (R-SD) questions a witness during a hearing December 10, 2009 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
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Dustin Volz
Feb. 26, 2015, 2:23 p.m.

As In­ter­net act­iv­ists cel­eb­rated their net-neut­ral­ity win Thursday, Re­pub­lic­ans were already plot­ting their re­venge.

GOP law­makers were vir­tu­ally un­an­im­ous in ex­press­ing their out­rage about the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion’s vote to re­clas­si­fy the In­ter­net as a util­ity. But there is widen­ing dis­agree­ment with­in the ranks about just what fla­vor of re­venge the party should ul­ti­mately pur­sue, such as com­prom­ise le­gis­la­tion, a con­gres­sion­al res­ol­u­tion of dis­ap­prov­al, or a fight over FCC fund­ing.

“There’s go­ing to be a lot of Re­pub­lic­ans in both the House and Sen­ate who are go­ing to want to ex­press their op­pos­i­tion to what the FCC is do­ing,” Sen. John Thune, who chairs the up­per cham­ber’s Com­merce Com­mit­tee, told Na­tion­al Journ­al mo­ments be­fore the FCC vote took place. “If we can’t come to­geth­er be­hind a le­gis­lat­ive solu­tion, I sus­pect that those oth­er op­tions are on the table.”

Thune, the Sen­ate’s No. 3 Re­pub­lic­an, has been at the fore­front of his party’s ef­forts to pur­sue le­gis­la­tion that would es­sen­tially en­force the meat of the FCC’s net-neut­ral­ity pro­tec­tions without des­ig­nat­ing the In­ter­net as a “tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice.” Though Thune has had some suc­cess earn­ing the in­terest of a hand­ful of mod­er­ate Demo­crats, such as Sens. Bill Nel­son and Claire Mc­Caskill, most Demo­crats have shown little in­terest in the pro­pos­al.

“Along with many of my col­leagues, I re­gard this as a non­starter,” Sen Al Franken, a vo­cal net-neut­ral­ity pro­ponent, said late Thursday in ref­er­ence to Thune’s le­gis­la­tion.

A lot of Re­pub­lic­ans ap­pear to have little in­terest in push­ing le­gis­la­tion, either, pre­fer­ring in­stead to blast the FCC ac­tion as an­oth­er ex­ample of over­reach by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. In lieu of a com­prom­ise, many have floated more pun­it­ive meas­ures.

Twenty-one House Re­pub­lic­ans sent a let­ter to FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er vow­ing to push a res­ol­u­tion of dis­ap­prov­al un­der the Con­gres­sion­al Re­view Act—which only needs a simple ma­jor­ity in both houses—to nul­li­fy the agency’s ac­tions and pre­vent any fu­ture re­li­ance on Title II of the Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act. The pres­id­ent can still veto such a res­ol­u­tion.

“We will not stand by idly as the White House, us­ing the FCC, at­tempts to ad­vance rules that im­per­il the fu­ture of the In­ter­net,” the Re­pub­lic­ans, led by Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Bob Good­latte, wrote. They ad­ded that they in­ten­ded to “take every ac­tion ne­ces­sary to en­sure that the In­ter­net re­mains a free, com­pet­it­ive mar­ket­place.”

The sub­stance and bel­li­cose rhet­or­ic of that salvo, however, did not align with a joint state­ment from a sep­ar­ate batch of Re­pub­lic­ans on the House Com­merce Com­mit­tee’s com­mu­nic­a­tions and tech­no­logy pan­el. Like Thune, the House pan­el has been work­ing for le­gis­la­tion on net neut­ral­ity and pledged to seek com­prom­ise with Demo­crats.

“We be­lieve the In­ter­net has worked well un­der cur­rent rules, but we were—and we re­main—will­ing to come to the table with le­gis­la­tion to an­swer the calls for leg­ally sus­tain­able con­sumer pro­tec­tions for the free and open In­ter­net that has fostered a gen­er­a­tion of in­nov­a­tion, eco­nom­ic growth, and glob­al em­power­ment,” the Re­pub­lic­an let­ter said.

Thune, for his part, said he was will­ing to tweak his le­gis­la­tion to get more Demo­crats on board. He spe­cific­ally high­lighted con­cerns that Sen. Cory Book­er, a New Jer­sey Demo­crat, had about lan­guage in his bill that would lim­it powers un­der Sec­tion 706 of the Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions Act to strike down state laws lim­it­ing mu­ni­cip­al broad­band.

“We don’t want to have an un­boun­ded 706. I think that’s really dan­ger­ous,” Thune said. “But we’re will­ing to listen to their sug­ges­tions.”

But Thune con­ceded his more com­bat­ive col­leagues may ul­ti­mately win out. Though he prefers a le­gis­lat­ive solu­tion, he said a res­ol­u­tion of dis­ap­prov­al could “cer­tainly be one way” to re­spond to the FCC’s vote.

And a stan­doff over the FCC’s budget isn’t out of the ques­tion, either.

“Us­ing the fund­ing pro­cess could be an­oth­er way,” Thune said. “I don’t think we’re go­ing to get in­to a DHS-type situ­ation like this, but I do think that we could, by vari­ous riders on ap­pro­pri­ations bills, at­tempt to send that mes­sage. So we’ll see—I’m not rul­ing any­thing out.”


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