Senate Passes Democrats’ Resolution to Restore Net Neutrality (2)

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By Jonathan Reid

The Senate voted 52-47 to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules.

The May 16 passage is a symbolic victory for Democrats seeking to leverage the issue against Republicans ahead of the midterm elections. The resolution will likely not get past the Republican-controlled House. But Democrats’ attempt to identify net neutrality rule opponents through the vote reflects how political the issue has become and its unclear path ahead.

Democrats used the Congressional Review Act—which allows Congress to review and overturn new federal agency rules—to force the Senate to vote on a resolution that would nullify the FCC’s repeal of the Obama-era regulations. The net neutrality rules bar internet service providers, such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp., from slowing or blocking traffic, or charging for faster network lanes.

Three Republicans—Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and John Kennedy (Louisiana)—joined all 49 members of the Senate Democratic caucus to send the resolution, which was introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), to the House.

The FCC said last week that the net neutrality rules will officially expire on June 11. But the agency faces a slew of lawsuits from consumer and media advocacy groups that want to quash the rollback and restore the rules that were passed in 2015. Meanwhile, several lawmakers are also seeking to settle the issue once and for all through legislation.

“Today we show the American people who sides with them and who sides with the powerful special interests and corporate donors who are thriving under this administration,” Markey said in a May 16 floor speech before the vote on final passage.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) characterized Democrats’ net neutrality resolution as a political play ahead of the November elections.

“Democrats have already made clear that the resolution today is about the elections in November,” McConnell said in a May 16 floor speech. “They know they won’t ultimately be successful, but they want a campaign on their desire to add new regulations to the internet.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, criticized Democrats for moving forward with a partisan resolution to uphold the net neutrality rules, instead of working with Republicans to reach a bipartisan legislative compromise.

“All we need are a few courageous Democrats who are willing to acknowledge what this is—which is a political partisan charade—and get serious about bipartisan legislation,” Thune said in a May 16 speech on the Senate floor.

At least one Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), expressed support for a “legislative solution” as senators debated the resolution. But Nelson, the top Democrat on Thune’s committee, said in forcing the vote Democrats were taking “a stand on the excessive action of the FCC” in repealing the Obama-era rules.

In a partisan 3-2 vote, the FCC in December adopted the Restoring Internet Freedom Order to rescind the net neutrality regulations.

The FCC’s rollback has spurred a flurry of legal challenges and several states to take action. Washington and Oregon moved to enact their own net neutrality laws following the FCC’s December vote, and other states are considering similar tactics.

Net neutrality supporters say the rules protect consumers and encourage innovation by creating a level playing field for access to internet content.

“What net neutrality is fundamentally about is everybody gets a fair shake with respect to using the internet,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a May 16 floor speech. “There are no special deals. There are no priority lanes for those with deep pockets who get more content and they get it faster than everybody else. It’s not the way it works today.”

Net neutrality opponents, such as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, argue that the Obama-era regulations, which also barred ISPs from charging for faster Internet “lanes,” are unnecessary and have harmed competition and innovation.

“Last year, under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC sought to rectify this mistake and destroy the results of the rules that helped the internet flourish while still protecting consumers from abuses. The resolution Democrats are putting forward today would undo that progress,” McConnell said in the May 16 speech.

The resolution has little chance of passing the House, where it’d need 218 votes. A companion resolution filed by Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) to restore net neutrality has 161 co-sponsors.

President Donald Trump has been largely silent on the issue, but he can veto the measure if it clears Congress.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Reid at jreid@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Roger Yu at ryu@bloomberglaw.com

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