Republicans who support net neutrality caught between industry, Tea Party

House Republicans who support net-neutrality legislation could face political consequences for “regulating the Internet” from Tea Party activists. 

Telecommunications companies have embraced net-neutrality rules as a way to ward off tougher regulations, and appear ready to provide cover for Republicans who want to support the legislation. But the Tea Party movement that has defeated several incumbent Republicans in primaries this year is staunchly opposed to net-neutrality proposals backed by Democrats

“I hope [GOP House members] keep in mind that the fired-up group of people this cycle is the Tea Party," said Seton Motley, who runs the group Less Government, which argues against burdensome government regulations. 

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is expected to introduce his net-neutrality bill this week, possibly as soon as Tuesday. It is expected to have support from industry stakeholders, including some phone and cable companies.

The Democratic lawmakers involved with the legislation are courting GOP support to usher the measure through the House during the lame-duck session. But there are already signs that will be difficult.

Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnOvernight Healthcare: Mylan CEO faces bipartisan outrage over EpiPen pricing House panel votes to hold fetal tissue company in contempt Top Dem to GOP leaders: Halt panel's plan to charge firm tied to Planned Parenthood MORE (R-Tenn.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Communications subcommittee, seems skeptical of Waxman’s bill.

Blackburn has previously sponsored legislation that would prohibit the FCC from imposing net-neutrality rules and has argued that regulating the Internet would hamper innovation and the spread of broadband.

“How fitting that in the last days of this Congress, Democrats would draw up a bill to regulate one of the few non-government sectors of our economy still creating jobs,” Claude Chafin, a spokesman for Blackburn, told The Hill on Monday.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), another vocal opponent of net-neutrality rules, also framed the Energy and Commerce compromise bill—designed to bring together industry opponents—as a Democratic initiative.

“Speaker Pelosi and President Obama have taken measures to control the healthcare industry, the auto industry, the banking industry and the insurance industry," Culberson told The Hill on Monday. “It comes as no surprise that they attempt to control commercial activity over the Internet before they lose control of Congress.”

Supporting a bill that creates unprecedented rules will not be an easy vote for Republican members who have historically opposed a policy they view as an unnecessary regulation of the Internet. Active opposition from Tea Party groups could make it even tougher for Republicans to support it.

Thirty-five Tea Party groups spoke out against net-neutrality rules earlier this year and said they planned to organize around the issue.

Motley supports congressional action on the issue and has argued it would have been wrong for the FCC to dictate regulations. But he said he’s not sure the Tea Party will see things the same way.

Tea Party groups that have taken an interest in net neutrality may focus on the fact that Congress is writing rules, and not that it is preventing stricter ones from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

There are signs that there will be support for a net neutrality bill from some interest groups, which could give members in both parties political cover. Groups that traditionally take stances aligning with phone and cable companies, and in some cases receive funding from them, have offered positive assessments of the legislative fix.

Buzz-words are already emerging among these groups about why this bill is a victory: They stress that it would take reclassification off the table, that it sunsets in 2012 and that it would not give the FCC new authority, according to a working draft.

Scott Cleland, one of net neutrality's most ardent critics, has rarely been heard praising new rules for phone and cable companies. He is president of NETCompetition.org, which receives support from telecom interests such as U.S. Telecom, CTIA, NCTA, AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.

Cleland said Monday that bipartisan support for such a bill would "show progress and that this issue can be worked out." By preventing a much more powerful FCC, the bill could be an attractive possibility, he said.

"Temporary enforcement authority compared to permanent rule-making authority; that's the rub," Cleland said.

Kelly Cobb, the executive director of the Digital Liberty Project, a program by Grover Norquist's group Americans for Tax Reform, came at the issue from a similar perspective. "The only political consequence for Republicans supporting the bill would be that they successfully held back a rogue government agency," he said.

In a striking sign that people who normally align themselves with telecommunications companies may line up behind the bill if it is industry-backed, ardent net-neutrality critic Brett Glass, founder of a wireless company, is open to it. He tweeted on Monday, in a note to Americans for Prosperity executive Phil Kerpen, that the Waxman legislation seems "more reasonable than I expected."
 
In a note earlier this month, analysts at Stifel Nicolaus wrote that although Republican House members "may not have incentive to solve a political problem for Democrats," some may support the bill "if there's a push by" phone and cable companies and at least some Internet companies.