Senate Democrats set up showdown with GOP over Net Neutrality

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(Bloomberg) -- All 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats have signed on to a measure to undo the Republican gutting of Obama-era net neutrality rules, a clear signal that they have more than internet policy in mind as they move to force a vote.

They’re looking forward to wielding the issue in the fall elections.

Senator Ed Markey’s resolution has attracted the entire caucus as sponsors, the Massachusetts Democrat said in a news release Tuesday. The effort also has support from Maine Republican Susan Collins, leaving it one shy of the number needed to pass, but with plenty more than the 30-vote threshold needed to compel Senate action.

“When we force a vote on this bill, Republicans in Congress will -- for the first time -- have the opportunity to right the administration’s wrong and show the American people whose side they’re on,” New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, said in a tweet.

That might be all the measure accomplishes. It can pass the Senate with a simple majority, but House rules give Republican leadership tighter control and passage seems unlikely. In addition, Trump, who supported the FCC’s action, could veto it.

"I don’t think its going to go anywhere in the House and the president will not sign it, so I’m not exactly sure what the point is," Senator John Cornyn, of Texas, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said in an interview.

He said he will not support the resolution.

Schumer, signaling the political appeal of the issue, cast the choice as between large internet service providers, a group including Comcast Corp. and AT&T Inc., or “consumers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.”

A companion bill in the House has attracted more than 80 sponsors -- all Democrats and no Republicans.

The net neutrality rule barred broadband providers including Comcast, AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. that control airwaves and lines into homes and businesses from blocking or slowing rivals’ web traffic, to favor their own content. The Federal Communications Commission -- led by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai who was chosen by President Donald Trump -- voted in December to eliminate those protections. The FCC said other agencies could police corporate behavior.

Competing legislation put forward by Tennessee Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn that would set open-internet protections into law, and that net neutrality supporters say doesn’t go far enough, has 22 sponsors -- all Republican.

“This is definitely going to play to the benefit of the Democrats,” said Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

Kull’s program released an opinion poll two days before the FCC’s vote found 83 percent of respondents opposed repealing restrictions on broadband providers. Of that, 75 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of independents opposed the repeal, the program said in a news release.

"It can contribute to an over-arching narrative about special interests,” Kull said in an interview. That can be “used against Trump as evidence that he’s not living up to the promises he’s made to listen to the people and less to the special interests,” he said.

“Lawmakers that stand in our way will regret it,” Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, a policy group that opposes the FCC’s action, said in a posting online. “Net neutrality is going to be an election issue in 2018 and every member of Congress knows it.”

Bloomberg News