Senate Democrats are set to score a victory on net neutrality Wednesday afternoon in a showdown on the chamber floor, a move they believe will stir up passion among young voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
They are forcing a Senate vote on a resolution to undo the FCC’s 2017 repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules. That GOP-led rollback, set to take effect June 11, targeted rules that prevented broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast from blocking and throttling internet traffic.
The Democrats' plan has enough votes to pass in the Senate, in part because of the absence of the ailing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). And its backers hope the measure will drive momentum going into election season.
“Pretty much every millennial supports it,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the lead sponsor of the resolution, told reporters last week during a news conference.
Even if Democrats prevail Wednesday, the resolution, crafted under the 1996 Congressional Review Act, still faces tough odds in the House. It requires 218 votes to force a vote there, and only 160 House Democrats back the measure for now. The legislation would also require the signature of President Donald Trump, who has criticized the net neutrality rules.
But Democrats say the Senate vote will put Republicans on the record on a key issue as voters approach the ballot box. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a non-skippable six-second YouTube bumper ad on the issue Monday, part of what it said was an ongoing six-figure advertising buy.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has peppered his recent remarks with references aimed at younger voters, referring to the concept of "Netflix and chill" and pro-net neutrality advertisements on the dating app Tinder. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has sought to rally support through posts and brief videos on his social media accounts. "One thing you can do today is post something on [Facebook], twitter or [Instagram] about net neutrality, and then call your Senators about it," Schatz tweeted Monday.
This vote is the latest tactical maneuver in a partisan policy battle going back more than a decade over the government's role in internet oversight. Republicans call the Obama-era regulations burdensome and chilling to broadband infrastructure investment. Net neutrality advocates say firm rules are necessary to protect consumers and keep broadband providers from demanding payments from web companies for fast connections while deliberately disadvantaging competitors — offering stellar quality for their own video, for instance, while degrading streams from other companies.
The back-and-forth has included multiple court cases and, at times, overtures from congressional Republicans and some Democrats for bipartisan legislation. A compromise has remained elusive.
Even Republicans are divided on some particulars of what such a compromise bill should look like. Some, like Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), support a ban on so-called fast lanes in which broadband providers charge web companies to speed their content to consumers. Others, such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee's telecom panel, have suggested support for allowing fast lanes.
Democrats are "going to try and convince people that we’re getting the internet one word at a time, but that’s just not going to be true," Thune said Tuesday. "I don’t know how this [resolution] in the long run does anything to solve the problem."
It's still unclear just hours before the vote whether Democrats will peel off any additional Republicans to back Markey's resolution. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has joined all 49 members of the Democratic caucus in support of it. With McCain absent due to his cancer treatment, the 50 votes the measure boasts give it the simple Senate majority it needs to pass.
Democrats’ decision to force the vote now spurred some complaints from Republicans that Democrats are exploiting McCain’s absence. Markey and others contend they have to hold the vote now because Senate rules make June 12 the deadline for action on the measure, based on the FCC's timing in approving the repeal order and publishing it in the Federal Register.
Pushing for a clean victory, Democrats have been rallying under a cry for “one more vote,” looking for at least one other Republican to cross party lines with Collins.
“Nobody has informed us that they’re going to be voting for it,” Thune, also the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, told POLITICO on Tuesday afternoon. “I’m talking pretty regularly with all our members who I know are concerned about that issue.”
Some moderates whom net neutrality advocates have targeted shot down the idea of voting to revive the Obama-era regulations. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), an especially vulnerable incumbent in this year’s elections, said he supports the FCC’s GOP chairman when pressed earlier this year on net neutrality. Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) didn’t hesitate in declaring their opposition to the measure.
"That was pretty much a no-brainer for me," Corker told POLITICO. "It wasn't even a difficult decision."
Others have told POLITICO in recent days they are still weighing the choice.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) is still undecided, he said Tuesday. An aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told POLITICO last week she has no “firm stance” on the resolution, and on Tuesday, Murkowski said, "I am not announcing anything yet.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) declined to say whether he might vote in favor of the resolution but said the FCC "didn't have the authority" to make the 2015 rules the agency scrapped under Trump-selected Chairman Ajit Pai. Portman ultimately called for bipartisan legislation to settle the issue.
"It’s important to get legislation. Otherwise you’re going to have just what we’ve got now, which is every new administration comes in, it changes again,” he said.