Senate Commerce to Focus on Telecom, Transportation

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By Kyle Daly and Stephanie Beasley

Nov. 9 — Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is expected to remain at the helm of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in the next Congress, as the panel looks to see what legislation it wants to move when the GOP controls both chambers of Congress and the White House.

Republicans on the panel envisioned a number of ostensibly bipartisan priorities for 2017 before the Nov. 8 election, according to Republican committee spokesman Frederick Hill. Items on that list included pushing through several bills with bipartisan support that have stalled in the current Congress, such as a Federal Communications Commission reauthorization measure (S. 2644) and a spectrum bill (S. 2555), if lawmakers don't pass them during the lame duck session.

Committee observers told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 9 they expect the panel to produce an expansive agenda targeting the FCC's statutory authority and its 2015 reclassification of broadband as a common carrier service.

Commerce Committee Republicans also intend to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration; launch discussions on self-driving vehicles; and work to craft legislation on cybersecurity, data breach notification requirements and broadband infrastructure. President-elect Trump has said he will push for infrastructure investments that include spending on telecommunications.

Leadership Moves

Thune intends to continue serving as chairman of the committee, Hill said. A spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the committee's ranking member, told Bloomberg BNA it’s too early to say if he’ll continue on as the panel’s top-ranking Democrat, but it’s likely he will, as he is not in line for any other leadership positions.

But panel subcommittees could be due for a leadership shakeup. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), chairman of the panel's aviation subcommittee, was ousted from her seat by former New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan (D) in a very tight race.

The next-most senior Republican on that subcommittee is Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who already chairs the Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet subcommittee. It’s unclear whether Wicker will seek the aviation gavel or stick with the communications subcommittee.

Transportation Issues

Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization will be back on the table for full committee That issue could produce a fresh standoff between committee members and their House counterparts regarding air traffic control.

Nelson staunchly opposed a proposal approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this year that would have transferred oversight of air traffic control from the FAA to a new non-profit corporation headed by airlines, air traffic controllers and other aviation stakeholders. Thune has yet to strongly endorse the plan.

The Senate passed an 18-month FAA reauthorization in April that omitted the House-backed ATC spin-off plan. That bill was not taken up by the House. Instead both chambers approved a short-term extension that renewed FAA spending through September 30, 2017.

In addition to air traffic control, some of the key topics that Senate Commerce could examine on this go-round of FAA reauthorization talks include potentially lifting some of the FAA’s restrictions on commercial drone flights and enacting consumer protections, like reduced airline fees—an area that has been of strong interest to Democrats on the committee such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.).

There is going to be pressure on Congress to address a developing patchwork of state laws on autonomous vehicles ahead of the next surface transportation reauthorization, although lawmakers might let things percolate and settle a little more in this area before taking legislative action, one lobbyist said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kyle Daly in Washington at kdaly@bna.com; Stephanie Beasley in Washington at sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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