Senate votes to save net neutrality rules

The Senate on Wednesday voted to reinstate the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) net neutrality rules, passing a bill that has little chance of advancing in the House but offers net neutrality supporters and Democrats a political rallying point for the midterm elections.

Democrats were able to force Wednesday’s vote using an obscure legislative tool known as the Congressional Review Act (CRA). CRA bills allow Congress, with a majority vote in each chamber and the president's signature, to overturn recent agency moves.

Three Republicans — Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsFrom a Republican donor to Senate GOP: Remove marriage penalty or risk alienating voters The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus New polls show tight races for Graham, McConnell MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire Hillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns MORE (Alaska) and John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) — joined the 49 Senate Democrats to pass the bill 52-47.

They argue that without the net neutrality regulations, which require internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally, companies such as Verizon and Comcast will be free to discriminate against certain content or boost their partner websites.

And despite the odds against the bill, Democrats see tremendous upside in the potential to use it as a campaign issue.

"A key question for anyone on the campaign trail in 2018 will now be, 'Do you support net neutrality?' " Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Budowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey MORE (D-Mass.), who introduced the bill, said in a press conference after the vote.

Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai blasted Democrats for their "scare tactics" and said that his proposal is meant to correct the FCC's regulatory overreach during the Obama administration.

“It’s disappointing that Senate Democrats forced this resolution through by a narrow margin," Pai said in a statement. "But ultimately, I'm confident that their effort to reinstate heavy-handed government regulation of the internet will fail.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The bill will have a much harder time in the House, where Democrats would need 25 Republicans to cross the aisle and join a discharge petition in order to bring it up for a vote.

Rep. Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleHillicon Valley: Facebook civil rights audit finds 'serious setbacks' | Facebook takes down Roger Stone-affiliated accounts, pages | State and local officials beg Congress for more elections funds House Democrats press Twitter, Facebook, Google for reports on coronavirus disinformation FCC rejects petition to probe broadcasts of Trump coronavirus briefings MORE (D-Pa.) said he would be releasing a discharge petition on the bill on Thursday morning.

For their part, most Republicans argue that the net neutrality rules are unnecessary and onerous for broadband providers. The GOP has been urging Democrats to come to the negotiating table to work out a legislative replacement to the FCC rules, a move that is also backed by the broadband industry.

"I’m disappointed but not surprised that Democrats rejected my offer to write, consider, and amend legislation in a process open to ideas from both sides of the aisle," Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's 12:30 Report: White House, Dems debate coronavirus relief package The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Key 48 hours loom as negotiators push for relief deal Trump dismisses legal questions on GOP nomination speech at White House MORE (R-S.D.) said in a statement. "Despite this vote, I remain committed to finding a path to bipartisan protections for the internet and stand ready to work with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle when they are ready as well.”

But net neutrality supporters reject the idea that a Republican-controlled Congress could come up with protections as strong as the FCC rules. Legislation offered by GOP members leaves open the possibility that internet providers could create “fast lanes” by charging websites for faster speeds.

At a press conference Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocratic convention lineup to include Ocasio-Cortez, Clinton, Warren: reports Trump tees up executive orders on economy but won't sign yet New postmaster general overhauls USPS leadership amid probe into mail delays MORE (D-Calif.) joined Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPostal Service says it lost .2 billion over three-month period A three-trillion dollar stimulus, but Charles Schumer for renewable energy — leading businesses want to change that Democrats try to force Trump to boost medical supplies production MORE (D-N.Y.) in calling on Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker Budowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey Democratic super PAC quotes Reagan in anti-Trump ad set to air on Fox News: 'Are you better off?' MORE (R-Wis.) to bring the bill to the House floor — and rank-and-file Republicans to back it.

"We consider this one of the major issues of the 2018 campaign," Schumer told reporters.

Polls consistently show public support for net neutrality, with one from before the FCC’s repeal vote reporting that more than 80 percent of respondents — including 75 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of Democrats — wanted to see the rules stay on the books.

The FCC voted 3-2 along party lines in December to repeal its Obama-era Open Internet Order, a move the GOP hailed as a rollback of regulatory overreach.

"Following today’s vote, Americans will still be able to access the websites they want to visit. They will still be able to enjoy the services they want to enjoy," Pai said last year. "There will still be cops on the beat guarding a free and open internet. This is the way things were prior to 2015, and this is the way they will be once again."

Democrats on and off the panel have decried the action ever since.

"As a result of today’s misguided action, our broadband providers will get extraordinary new power from this agency," Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at the time. "They will have the power to block websites, throttle services and censor online content. They will have the right to discriminate and favor the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have pay-for-play arrangements and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road.”

Democrats and net neutrality supporters are also trying to fight the FCC’s repeal order in court, though the legal battle is likely to drag on for months.

Updated at 4:58 p.m.