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Democrats will force the Senate to debate net neutrality — but they don’t have the votes to restore the rules

Still, net neutrality advocates took an early victory lap on Tuesday.

Senator Ed Markey holds his notes and speaks from a podium beside a sign that reads, “Protect net neutrality & reclassify Title II.” Mark Wilson / Getty

Democrats rejoiced on Tuesday that they had secured enough votes to force the Senate to debate whether to restore the U.S. government’s recently repealed net neutrality rules.

But their celebrations could prove short-lived on Capitol Hill, where Republicans control both chambers of Congress — and can easily scuttle any attempt to revive regulations that required internet providers to treat all web traffic equally.

The legislative battle comes in response to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who led a vote in December to scrap rules that prevented companies like AT&T and Comcast* from blocking, slowing down or otherwise interfering with web traffic.

In response, net neutrality advocates — from companies like Etsy to liberal activists and state attorneys general — have said they would sue to stop the FCC. Trade groups for tech giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google have pledged to intervene in the fight, too.

But the FCC faces another onslaught on Capitol Hill, where Senate Democrats have embarked on a campaign to undo Pai’s repeal vote. That effort is led by Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, who opened a press conference on Tuesday by declaring that the FCC had turned a “deaf ear to millions of Americans standing up for a free and open internet.”

For Markey and his colleagues, their plan is to use a little-known law called the Congressional Review Act. Essentially, it allows lawmakers to debate, then vote, to undo actions by federal agencies. In order to force the Senate to debate net neutrality, Democrats only need 30 votes. And they secured more than that — 40 votes — earlier this week, even though that outcome wasn’t exactly in doubt.

Nevertheless, the real test comes later — when net neutrality-supporting Democrats have to rally a majority of votes in the Senate in order to repeal Pai’s repeal, so to speak. And that requires them to enlist the support of Republicans, who never much liked the U.S. government’s last set of net neutrality rules in the first place.

Democrats similarly are outnumbered by GOP opponents in the House, and they certainly don’t have the support of President Donald Trump, who would have to sign the effort for it to become law.

In speech after speech on Tuesday, though, Senate Democrats mostly sidestepped those issues. Instead, they essentially dared their GOP colleagues to vote against net neutrality — and risk enraging younger voters.

“Net neutrality will be a major issue in the 2018 campaigns,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, “and we are going to let everybody know where we stand — and they stand.”

To Sen. Brian Schatz, meanwhile, the issue had riled young voters in a way that he hadn’t seen since “the Iraq war.”

“This is the time we have to fix the FCC’s mistake and restore net neutrality,” the Hawaii lawmaker continued, adding that Republicans are going to “regret it on policy and they’re going to regret it on politics.”

For now, Senate Democrats cannot even commence their campaign. It’s only after the FCC formally publishes its repeal in a federal rule repository that lawmakers can begin the process of forcing a vote on the chamber floor.

* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.

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