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 CollinsSenate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection Hillicon Valley — Presented by Connected Commerce Council — Incident reporting language left out of package Language requiring companies to report cyberattacks left out of defense bill MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenate leaders face pushback on tying debt fight to defense bill Congress should reject H.R. 1619's dangerous anywhere, any place casino precedent Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills 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 MarkeyEd MarkeySenators seek to curb counterfeit toys and goods sold online Senate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Pledged money not going to Indigenous causes 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.”
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. DoyleHouse passes bipartisan bills to strengthen network security, cyber literacy Texas Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announces retirement at end of term Midterm gloom grows for Democrats 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 ThuneHouse approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike McConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal McConnell 'confident' 10 GOP senators will back debt deal 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 PelosiHouse approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Ocasio-Cortez: 'Embarrassment' that Democratic leaders are delaying Boebert punishment Overnight Health Care — Biden mandate faces Dem resistance MORE (D-Calif.) joined Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBuild Back Better Is bad for the states Dole to lie in state in Capitol Rotunda Biden points to drug prices in call for Senate social spending vote MORE (D-N.Y.) in calling on Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFormer Sen. Bob Dole dies at 98 No time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power 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.