U.S. Senate Democrats close to majority in drive to restore net neutrality

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(Reuters) – U.S. Senate Democrats said on Tuesday they had the backing of 50 members of the 100-person chamber to overturn the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s decision to reverse the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules, leaving them just one vote short of a majority.

Senator Ed Markey said in a statement that all 49 Democrats backed the repeal. Earlier this month, Republican Senator Susan Collins said she would back the effort to overturn the FCC’s move. Democrats need 51 votes to win any proposal in the Republican-controlled Senate because Vice President Mike Pence can break any tie.

The FCC voted in December along party lines to reverse rules introduced in 2015 that barred internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic or offering paid fast lanes, also known as paid prioritization. The new rules will not take effect for several months, the FCC has said.

A group of 21 state attorneys general on Tuesday, including California, New York and Virginia, filed a petition for a review of the decision with an appeals court in Washington, arguing the FCC’s action was “arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion” and that it violated federal laws and regulations. An appeal may not be heard until the rules officially take effect later this year.

A reversal of the FCC decision needs the approval of the Senate, the House of Representatives and President Donald Trump. Trump backed the FCC action, the White House said last month, and overturning a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the issue would be a major motivating factor for the young voters the party is courting.

A trade group representing major tech companies including Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc and Amazon.com Inc said it would support legal challenges to the reversal.

The vote in December marked a victory for AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc and handed them power over what content consumers can access on the internet. It was the biggest win for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in his sweeping effort to undo many telecommunications regulations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, backs the FCC repeal.

While the FCC order grants internet providers sweeping new powers it does require public disclosure of the blocking practices. Internet providers have vowed not to change how consumers obtain online content.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, a Republican, said in an interview on Tuesday he planned to hold a hearing on paid prioritization. He has urged Democrats to work constructively on a legislative solution to net neutrality “to bring certainty and clarity going forward and ban behaviors like blocking and throttling.”

He said he does not believe a vote to overturn the FCC decision would get a majority in the U.S. House. Representative Mike Doyle, a Democrat, said Tuesday that his bill to reverse the FCC decision had 80 cosponsors.

Paid prioritization is part of American life, Walden said. “Where do you want to sit on the airplane? Where do you want to sit on Amtrak?” he said.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler