GOP torn between homeland security, fiscal restraint in public safety fight

An influential set of conservatives, including Reps. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSenate campaign fundraising reports roll in This week: Time running out for Congress to avoid shutdown House votes next week on abortion bill MORE (Tenn.) and Cliff Stearns (Fla.), have endorsed auctioning off the valuable D Block of spectrum to commercial providers. 

The proceeds would be used to fund the public safety network, and although first responders would share the lines with regular Internet traffic, they would be able to preempt it in times of need.

A competing group of Republicans, however, is wedded to a more expensive option. 

Invoking the strains placed on networks during terrorist attacks or catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, they say the D Block should be directly allocated to public safety, so first responders can have the most state of the art network possible without facing potential challenges involved with sharing.

That option is backed by public safety groups, including the New York City Police Department, which lobbied hard last year for direct allocation of the D Block and visited Capitol Hill in their emergency vehicles. 

But after promises to cut spending swept them into power, House Republicans are showing renewed interest in selling off the D Block. The Energy and Commerce Committee indicated in a list of priorities that their spectrum legislation might endorse the auction.

Blackburn put it this way in a hearing last year: "While we all strongly support public safety having the spectrum and equipment it needs to effectively and efficiently do its job, giving away valuable spectrum, quite frankly, is not affordable and not feasible at this time."

That paves the way for a clash with Republicans and others who prefer direct allocation. 

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), ranking member of the Commerce Committee, is working on a comprehensive wireless bill that will address the public safety issue. It is expected to endorse direct allocation, consistent with her position from last year. 

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE (R-Ariz.) also backed direct allocation last year, but has yet to introduce his bill this year. The same goes for Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.).

The financial differences between the two options are significant. 

A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) white paper found last year that it would cost $6.5 billion to build a public safety network. That would double to about 15 billion if the government opts for direct allocation of the D Block, according to this analysis. 

Meanwhile, the prevailing estimate says the D Block auction could raise between $2 billion and $3 billion, which could be used to offset those costs.

But it could be tough for members to say no to a very active public safety lobby, which plans to return to Capitol Hill complete with emergency vehicles in the coming months. 

Also propelling direct allocation is the support it has garnered from the nation's two largest wireless companies, AT&T and Verizon, who have various financial interests in supporting the policy.

The competing interests at play in the D Block debate have divided Democrats as well. 

Senate Commerce Chairman Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerOvernight Tech: Trump nominates Dem to FCC | Facebook pulls suspected baseball gunman's pages | Uber board member resigns after sexist comment Trump nominates former FCC Dem for another term Obama to preserve torture report in presidential papers MORE (D-W.Va) introduced a spectrum bill Tuesday endorsing direct allocation, even though the FCC had backed the auction in its National Broadband Plan released last year.

The FCC chairman's office, however, has not really gone to bat for the auction since Rockefeller made his position clear last year, observers say.  

“Our priority and focus is on the build-out of an interoperable mobile broadband network for America’s first responders. We will continue to support initiatives and policies that foster that goal,” said FCC spokesman Robert Kenny.