The Senate on Wednesday delivered a rebuke to the Trump administration when all Democrats and three Republicans voted to reinstate net-neutrality regulations that the Federal Communications Commission scrapped last year.
The measure was largely symbolic, as it stands little chance of passing through the House of Representatives and virtually none at all of winning the signature of President Donald Trump. But it shows a political opening for proponents of net neutrality, should the balance of power swing toward the Democrats after the midterm elections later this year. It also illustrates that the debate over how data is transmitted on the Internet is not cleanly divided along partisan lines.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), John Kennedy (R-LA), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) were the only Republicans who voted for the resolution, which was introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). Without their support, it would not have passed. Those Republicans backed the measure even after GOP leaders undertook an intense lobbying campaign against it. Despite strong objections from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his leadership team, Democrats successfully forced a vote on the issue using the Congressional Review Act, a mechanism that allows Congress to nullify regulatory decisions from federal agencies.
“People thought we weren’t going to succeed in the Senate. And we’re succeeding in the Senate. We’re going to make a run at this in the House and we think we have a real shot,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who helped lead the effort and was engaged in long conversations with other lawmakers on the Senate floor during the vote, told The Daily Beast.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) dubbed the endeavor “a futile, symbolic gesture because it’s not going to go anywhere, but so be it.” McConnell, in an impassioned speech on Wednesday morning, said Democrats were trying to “regulate first, and ask questions later.” He argued that Democrats were more interested in making net neutrality a campaign issue than anything else.
Under net-neutrality rules, telecommunications companies and Internet service providers were prevented from favoring certain data types over others. Those regulations, which were put in place under the Obama administration, were rolled back under Trump’s FCC, which ruled that Internet providers could charge consumers more for better data delivery. The FCC’s decision, known as the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, takes effect on June 11.
“Under the 2017 order, an Internet service provider can throttle, block, or discriminate so long as it discloses,” Kennedy told The Daily Beast. “The response to that is, well, just switch Internet service providers. For some, they can. Others can’t.”
A December poll found that 83 percent of Americans opposed the FCC’s decision to repeal the Obama-era net-neutrality regulations. The same poll found that 75 percent of Republicans agree. And with the midterm elections just six months away, Democrats are hoping that enough House Republicans will fear a backlash from their constituents—and they’ve warned that rolling back the regulations could cause some Americans to pay more for even slower Internet speeds.
“Most of the primaries are over for these Republican members, and they’re going to be looking for an opportunity to demonstrate some independence,” Schatz said. “This is that opportunity to them. And if they don’t demonstrate the independence on net neutrality, then the voters will deliver the consequences.”