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Senators face new pressure to renew Net tax ban

A handful of Republicans take a step designed to speed up a vote on renewing the soon-to-expire federal law, but it's unclear how Democratic leaders will respond.

With only weeks to go before a federal halt to Internet access taxes expires, a handful of Senate Republicans is applying a new form of pressure on the Democratic leadership.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) on Wednesday reintroduced an identical version of his bill from January that would make permanent an existing moratorium set to end November 1. Unless Congress passes his proposal--or at least another temporary extension--there won't be anything stopping most state and local governments from taxing Internet access, including DSL (digital subscriber line), cable modem and BlackBerry-type wireless transmission services.

The difference this time is that Sununu filed the proposal under a Senate procedure known as Rule 14, which makes it eligible for immediate consideration on the Senate floor. That's significant because bills typically must first be cleared through subcommittee and committee votes--a process that can be time-consuming, as has been the case this year.

Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee, of which Sununu is a member, was supposed to vote on a bill that would have extended the ban for four more years. But at the last minute, committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) inexplicably yanked the bill from consideration.

The committee released a statement the next day saying "further negotiations were warranted," but it's still unclear when it will reschedule a vote. The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, which is considering similar legislation, also hasn't scheduled its own vote yet, an aide said Thursday.

In a statement on Wednesday, Sununu asserted that he's confident the Senate Commerce or Finance committee would return to the bill. Still, he said, he took the latest procedural step because he believes enacting legislation to make the Internet tax ban permanent is so important that there's a need to "keep every door open."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) joined Sununu in introducing the bill, but another original cosponsor--Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who was the author of the first Internet tax ban back in 1998--did not. His office didn't respond immediately to requests for an explanation.

What will happen next remains unclear. Because state officials and Internet and broadband companies still disagree over whether a permanent ban is advisable, it has appeared increasingly likely in recent months that simply a finite extension, to be revisited again in a few years, will ultimately pass. (Some Republicans have said they believe they have enough votes to enact a permanent ban, but Democratic leaders have been less willing to make that commitment.)

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) deferred to the Commerce Committee to give further details on the bill's next step, and committee aides didn't respond immediately to requests for comment Thursday.