WASHINGTON, May 16, 2018 -- The absence of Arizona Senator John McCain (R) from the Senate means Democrats appear to have enough votes to pass a bill to roll back the Federal Communications Commission's repeal of network neutrality rules put in place under the Obama administration, 50-49.
Without McCain, who remains at home in Arizona while undergoing treatment for brain cancer, the Senate's 49 Democrats can count on 50 votes thanks to the support of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, for S.J. Res. 52, a so-called resolution of disapproval making use of procedures laid out under the 1996 Congressional Review Act to roll back rules the FCC approved in December to repeal regulations put in place under then-chairman Tom Wheeler (D).
Those regulations, formally known as net neutrality rules, prohibit broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon from interfering with users’ internet traffic or prioritizing some traffic over others. Under Wheeler, the FCC did this by classifying broadband internet access services as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. Their repeal was a priority for the current Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has long opposed strong net neutrality protections.
Collins was instumental in getting Democrats' bill to the floor
Collins' support for the bill allowed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to force his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to bring the Democrat-sponsored bill to the floor using a rarely-used parliamentary maneuver called a discharge petition.
Although most legislation requires 60 Senators to vote to end debate on a bill before it can receive an up-or-down majority vote, resolutions under the Congressional Review Act resolutions cannot be filibustered, meaning only 51 votes are required for passage in the Senate.
Passage will be a victory for Senate Dems, but the effort's future beyond that is unclear
The fight to restore the Obama-era net neutrality rules will now depend on two very different politicians: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and President Trump
Pelosi's skill at holding her caucus together will be key as the fight moves to the House of Representatives, where Democrats face an uphill battle in gathering enough Republican support to force House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., to hold a vote on a companion to Markey's bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa.
While the bill's passage would represent a major -- and rare -- victory for a Democratic caucus that has struggled to make headway against President Donald Trump's efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations, it would also be a rare rebuke to Trump, who has made what his former strategist Steve Bannon called "deconstruction of the administrative state" a major priority.
While Trump has relished the opportunity to sign 15 CRA resolutions since he took office last year -- more than all other presidents combined -- it's not known whether he'd sign a 16th if it would restore a regulation promulgated under his predecessor.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was noncommittal last week when asked if President Trump would be amenable to allowing the Democrat-backed bill to become law.
"We'll keep you posted when we have a specific policy announcement on that front," she said.
Making Trump's approval more unlikely is the fact that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave FCC Chairman Pai's efforts to roll back the Obama-era net neutrality rules the White House's imprimatur last year during a July press briefing.
“We support the FCC chair's efforts to review and consider rolling back these rules, and believe that the best way to get fair rules for everyone is for Congress to take action and create regulatory and economic certainty,” she said."
The future remains clouded but Democrats will still celebrate
Nevertheless, Democrats are planning to enjoy the rare opportunity to strut a bit by holding a press conference after the Senate finishes voting today at around 3 this afternoon, which a source close to Markey said would also serve to highlight House Democrats' ongoing efforts.
Those expected to speak include Markey, along with Minority Leader Schumer, Sens. Maria Cantwell and Brian Schatz of Washington and Hawaii, respectively.
They will also be joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., along with Doyle and Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who are leading the effort to bring Doyle's bill to the House floor.
While the Senate effort was made more urgent because of a need to pass Markey's bill before the end of a 60-day period during which it could be considered, House Democrats have until the end of the 115th Congress' second session to finish the job.
(creative commons photo: President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.)