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Senate Democrats' move to reinstate net neutrality could pressure Heller

Humberto Sanchez
Humberto Sanchez

A Senate Democratic plan to force a vote on reversing the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to repeal net neutrality rules could put pressure on Sen. Dean Heller to side with Democrats or give them an issue to use on the campaign trail against him.

Heller, who is in a difficult re-election campaign, is one of a handful of Republicans who Democrats are targeting with the vote, which could come as soon as next week, according to Senate Democratic leadership aides.

“Heller is the most exposed,” by the vote, as the only Senate Republican seeking re-election from a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, said Matt House, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Heller is also a focal point because he is a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees telecommunications issues.

Net neutrality is shorthand for the idea that the Internet should be regulated like a public utility, and Internet providers should be prevented from blocking websites or charging for higher-quality service for certain websites.

Heller’s congressional office and re-election campaign declined to comment for this story. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, also declined to comment.

Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, questioned the rationale behind passing the Senate Democrats’ resolution, in part because the House is unlikely to take up the measure and President Donald Trump would not sign it. The aide also suggested that the issue doesn’t resonate with voters. “Nothing happened” after net neutrality rules were repealed, he said, noting that the Internet remains just as accessible as before.

“I’m still watching Netflix,” he quipped.

But with Heller and Rep. Jacky Rosen, Heller’s likely Democratic opponent in November, in a dead heat according to a recent poll commissioned by The Nevada Independent, both are looking for any issue that could help separate the two in the eyes of voters. Heller last week targeted Rosen over her support for the deal struck with Iran to curb its nuclear weapons program.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, said the issue is important for Nevada because it is imperative for small businesses and start-ups to be able to access the Internet without having to pay for faster service.

“It would inhibit small businesses from getting started,” Cortez Masto said, adding that she spoke with a successful podcaster over last week’s recess who said that she was able to succeed because of open access to the internet. “But now if there are restrictions where you have to pay more for your access, that’s going to inhibit small start-ups like that from being able to get started.”

Nevada Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, both Democrats, wrote to Heller in January calling on him to vote with Democrats on the issue. “You are in a unique and powerful position to be a decisive 51st vote in favor of this resolution,” the letter said. “As Nevada’s senior U.S. Senator, we urge you to fight the FCC’s misguided decision, by joining the bipartisan coalition seeking to preserve net neutrality.”

Senate Democrats are expected to file their resolution Wednesday, which is in turn expected to be celebrated by net neutrality interests and consumer groups as well as an online campaign with websites, including Reddit, Mozilla, Tumblr and Vimeo taking part by changing their home pages to raise awareness of the issue.

Heller, who was rated the 5th most bipartisan member of the Senate by the Lugar Center at Georgetown University, had been the target earlier this year of interest groups who thought he could be pressured to vote with Democrats, but he’s shown no sign of buckling.

“At this point we are probably thinking he is not” going to vote with Democrats, said Josh Braatan, who heads America’s Internet, a Super PAC focused on net neutrality and related online issues.

Braaten and Rosen’s campaigns contend that Heller is beholden to internet service providers (ISPs) due to contributions they’ve made to Heller over the course of his career. Braaten circulated a petition earlier this year that cited $440,750 in contributions to Heller from ISPs. The figure comes from an analysis from The Verge and The Center for Responsive Politics published in December.

“Dean Heller was a deciding vote in the Senate to repeal internet privacy rules, and he’s so far refused to protect a free and open internet by committing to restore net neutrality,” said Stewart Boss, spokesman for Rosen’s Senate campaign. “Considering the hundreds of thousands of dollars Sen. Heller has taken in donations from the telecom industry, this is yet another clear example of Senator Heller putting corporate special interests and their agenda ahead of what’s best for Nevadans.”

In March Heller told Politico that “I’m supportive of the [FCC] chairman, the decisions that he’s made.”

That jibes with a letter Heller sent to Sarah Jane Woodall, a Las Vegas-based blogger, who posted a video on YouTube in April detailing the letter. In her video, Woodall said she received the letter from Heller after signing an online petition.

In the letter, dated February 28, Heller said he opposed efforts under the previous FCC chairman, appointed by President Barack Obama, that put in place the Open Internet Order, which established net neutrality regulations. He further noted that he supports the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which was led by FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by Trump, and that reversed the Open Internet Order. The FCC passed Pai’s rule in December on a 3 to 2 party-line vote.

“I believe the 2015 Open Internet Order has been detrimental to innovation, competition and an open and free internet,” Heller wrote. “The Restoring Internet Freedom Order reverses this course, but ultimately Congress must play a role in revising our telecommunications laws that have not been updated in over two decades. We must empower consumers by promoting robust competition in the Internet ecosystem that will encourage new participants, create more choice and lower costs from consumers.”

Last month, Heller was the target of a digital ad from American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super PAC, over his vote to repeal an FCC rule that would have required Internet service providers to seek permission before using customer data to create profiles needed to customize ads.

Heller was an original co-sponsor of the measure, which was introduced by Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and was signed into law by the president in April 2017. “Passing my resolution is the first step toward restoring a consumer-friendly approach to internet privacy regulation that empowers consumers to make informed choices on if and how their data can be shared,” Flake said in a release touting Senate passage. “It will not change or lessen existing consumer privacy protections.”

In filing the resolution, Senate Democrats are acting under the Congressional Review Act, a law that allows Congress to repeal regulations within 60 days from when they have been submitted to Congress or from their publication in the Federal Register, whichever date is later. Resolutions under the law cannot be filibustered in the Senate and require only a simple majority for passage. The 60-day clock runs out June 12.

Republicans have successfully used the law to claw back 14 Obama-era regulations they contend hurt the economy, such as one that would have required federal contractors to disclose labor law and employment violations when bidding on a new or renewed contract.

The measure has a good chance of passing given that there are 50 members — including one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — who have signed on in support. That would be enough to pass the proposal given the absence of Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, who has been ill after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.


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