Net neutrality is holding up a massive Senate communications bill, meaning a final vote could be delayed until 2007.
The less-than-sunny prognosis from at a committee event here indicates a departure from the position he held before Congress left town for its August recess.
At that time, the Alaska Republican suggested he was confident he would be able to drum up the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster on the sweeping proposal, which includes everything from changes to the way the government subsidizes rural telecommunications to a revival of the controversial "broadcast flag" copy protection.
The split centers on the question of whether Congress should pass new laws barring network operators, in general, from prioritizing their own Web content and services. It also covers whether the operators should be allowed to make special deals with third-party content providers that want their material to be delivered more quickly or prominently.
An amendment proposing such an approach to a broader communications bill lost by a narrow 11-to-11 vote in the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this summer, but its mostly Democratic supporters plan to make a new push for its passage on the Senate floor. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, has approved a narrow measure that also falls short of Net neutrality fans' wishes.
Top Senate committee aides said it remains impossible to predict whether their bosses will succeed in passing its communications legislation this year, particularly since Congress has only a few weeks before it expects to recess again for last-minute campaigning.
But even if legislation stalls this year, the Net neutrality debate isn't likely to vanish anytime soon, some aides said.
"That issue is not going to go away until we have a whole lot more (broadband) competition than we do today, at least in my view," James Assey, senior counsel to the committee's Democrats, said at a panel discussion Friday.
Senators, such as Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who have sought to derail the bill because of perceived inadequacies in the Net neutrality section could be doing more harm for their own cause than good, said Lisa Sutherland, staff director for the committee's Republican side. Most senators in that camp continue to believe the "Internet consumer bill of rights" included in the approved communications measure offers sufficient safeguards.
"It's a little confusing to us," she said. "If we don't get a bill up at all, we basically have the status quo, and there are zero protections on Net neutrality."
Net neutrality took center stage again at Tuesday's Commerce Committee hearing. The hearing was convened so that politicians could hear testimony from John Kneuer, who is seeking Senate confirmation as head of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and from Kevin Martin, who is seeking approval to continue his tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Republicans who have blasted extensive Net neutrality regulations as unnecessary sought--and received--support from Martin, while Democrats grilled him on his rationale.
Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, asked whether network providers like Verizon should be able to charge more for "higher requirements" like video from their customers if Google and other content providers have the right to charge their customers for prime placement on their pages.
"I think so, and if we didn't allow them to, then they wouldn't be willing to offer those kinds of products," Martin replied, mirroring statements made by telecommunications executives who justify the extra fees as necessary new business models for expanding their broadband offerings.
That view misses the mark, charged Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.
"All of a sudden, we're going to have ISPs setting up toll roads, charging Web sites different rates, and your view is if we interfere with that, they won't make any progress," Boxer said. "Well, that is not the history of the Internet...I hope you will take a look again at the way you answered the question."