Net neutrality clings to life in big win by Senate Democrats

They came, they fought, they won. But the fight to save the existing net neutrality protections still has a long way to go.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read
US Capitol Building

The Democrats' legislative Hail Mary was successful in the US Capitol Wednesday.

Mark Reinstein / Getty Images

Democrats in the Senate squeaked out a major victory in their effort to save Obama-era net neutrality protections.

A vote on a resolution to turn back the Federal Communications Commission's repeal of net neutrality passed the Senate Wednesday with a final tally of 52 in favor and 47 against. (Here's how everyone voted.) 

Democrats are using the Congressional Review Act to try to halt the FCC's December repeal of net neutrality. The CRA gives Congress 60 legislative days to undo a regulation from a federal agency. Simple majorities are needed in both the House and Senate, as well as the president's signature, to roll back the FCC's vote.

All 49 Democrats in the Senate supported the effort to undo the FCC's vote. Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska crossed party lines to support the measure. Collins had pledged her support months ago. But it was unclear whether Kennedy or Murkowski would vote yes. The two senators had said they were undecided up until yesterday. But the measure was expected to pass even without their support because one senator, John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, was not in attendance to vote. McCain is undergoing treatment for brain cancer and is at home in Arizona.  

The bill's passage represents a major victory for Democrats. The net neutrality, rules, which passed a Democrat-led FCC in 2015, prevent broadband and wireless companies from blocking or slowing internet traffic. They've become highly politicized, with Democrats in Congress and many internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, strongly voicing their support. A majority of the public also supports net neutrality. Republican lawmakers and broadband lobbyists argue the existing rules hurt investment and will stifle innovation. They say efforts by Democrats to stop the FCC's repeal of the rules do nothing to protect consumers.

The FCC has scheduled the rules to officially come off the books June 11.

Watch this: Senate votes to undo FCC's net neutrality repeal

But the Democrats' victory in the Senate today is just the beginning of a legislative process to preserve net neutrality rules. The effort still faces an uphill battle in the 435-member House of Representatives, where currently only 160 Democrats have pledged support for a similar House resolution led by Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat from Pennsylvania.

Then there's President Donald Trump, who also needs to sign the resolution. Trump has made no secret of his ambitions to roll back Obama-era regulations, signing 15 CRA resolutions since he took office to do just that. It's unlikely he will sign this CRA to restore a regulation adopted under his predecessor.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested in a July press briefing that Trump is in lockstep with most congressional Republicans on the net neutrality issue.  

"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, according to the online newsletter Broadband and Breakfast.

But Democrats in the Senate say the momentum is theirs as they move the fight to the House. During a press conference following the vote, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York credited the victory to the grass roots advocacy that has led millions of people to call their senators and representatives asking them to support the CRA.

"Our greatest weapon are our people in the streets," he said. "Republicans are starting to hear the drumbeat. They are with the special interests, and we are with the people."

Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, said it's important to get every senator and every representative on the record when it comes to net neutrality.

"A lot of people say they are for net neutrality," Schatz said in an interview on Tuesday before the vote. "But when you talk about specific legislation that will protect those principles, they get marbles in their mouths. We are forcing an up or down vote to guarantee a free and open internet. There's nowhere to hide."

He called the effort to pass the resolution the beginning of a movement to take back the internet. He's hopeful that net neutrality will be an issue used to energize millions of young people and get them to vote in the November midterm elections.

"This is a turning point in the movement," he said. He added that it was great that more than 10 million people commented on the proposal to roll back the FCC rules last year. But he said the current Republican-led FCC is the result of a presidential election Democrats lost.

"What we need to do to change internet policy and restore net neutrality is vote, vote, vote," he said.

Schumer echoed those sentiments, "We consider [net neutrality] to be one of our major issues of the 2018 campaign."

Republicans like Senator John Thune of South Dakota accused the Democrats of playing politics with the vote.  In a speech on the floor of the Senate, he called Wednesday's vote a "fake" debate that his Democratic colleagues know is going "nowhere." Thune said he supports principles of net neutrality like no blocking and no throttling. And he would like to see bipartisan legislation to codify these principles into law. He had proposed such legislation in 2015, and today proposed putting aside the vote on the CRA to use that 2015 proposed legislation as a starting point in a bi-partisan bill to preserve net neutrality.  He said he was "disappointed but not surprised" that Democrats rejected his offer to work on amending this legislation. 

"This vote was about politics, not protecting net neutrality," he said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it's only going to delay Senate Democrats from coming to the table and negotiating bipartisan net neutrality legislation." 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also expressed disappointment in the vote, calling the 2015 approach to regulating the internet "heavy-handed." He reiterated his stance that eliminating the Obama-era rules will reinstate a "light regulatory" framework to the internet, which will ensure continued investment.

"The Internet was free and open before 2015, when the prior FCC buckled to political pressure from the White House and imposed utility-style regulation on the Internet," he said in a statement.  "And it will continue to be free and open once the Restoring Internet Freedom Order takes effect on June 11."

Democrats in the House are already gearing up for the next fight. Rep. Doyle from Pennsylvania, who is leading the charge in the House, said he's hopeful that the vote in the Senate and the support of three Republicans who crossed party lines to make its passage possible, will help attract more House members to sign his petition to force a vote in the House.  

"With the Majority Leadership in the House opposed to this bill, the only way to bring it before the full House for a vote is through a discharge petition," Doyle said.  "We just need to get a majority of Representatives to sign it."

He called on grassroots organizations and added,  "I'm sure that every Member of the House will want to know where their constituents stand on this issue."

Even if the resolution fails in either the House or does not get Trump's signature, net neutrality supporters will continue the fight. Several tech companies, like Vimeo, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Foursquare and Etsy, as well as 22 state attorneys general, have already filed lawsuits to preserve net neutrality protections.

There are also more than two dozen states, including California and New York, considering legislation to reinstate the rules within their borders. Earlier this year, Washington became the first state to sign such legislation into law. Governors in several other states, including New Jersey and Montana, have signed executive orders requiring ISPs that do business with the state to adhere to net neutrality principles.

First published May 16 at 12:48 p.m. PT.
Update 2:37 p.m. PT: Adds comments following the vote from Sens. Schumer and Thune, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Rep. Mike Doyle.

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