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Democrats are readying an all-out war to stop the FCC from killing net neutrality rules

Rep. Frank Pallone
Leigh Vogel | Getty Images
Rep. Frank Pallone

Rep. Frank Pallone is like many Democrats in the U.S. Congress: He's itching for a fight over net neutrality.

To the New Jersey congressman, the Obama administration "did its job" when it acted in 2015 to stop internet providers from meddling with the way that consumers use the web. The telecom industry didn't like the rules, of course, but Pallone saw them as the only way to prevent AT&T, Charter, Comcast* and Verizon from blocking or slowing down online content.

So when the Trump administration begins its work Thursday to kill the open-internet protections currently on the government's books, Pallone and his allies intend to return fire. They're already pledging to embark on a take-no-prisoners political crusade — one that also threatens to make the internet's most intractable debate even louder and harder to solve.

"Nobody believes the Republicans [who] are saying they want strong net neutrality, [or] they're going to come up with a better way," said Pallone, the top Democrat on the House committee overseeing the FCC, during an interview with Recode. "I'm not interested in this nonsense."

"It'll be a campaign issue if they repeal it," he added. "Our focus now is to say to the FCC, please don't do this."

In many ways, net neutrality is the internet's longest war: So far, it has spanned two decades, four presidents, scores of court challenges and multiple, wonky rulemaking proceedings at the nation's telecom regulator, the FCC. It has pitted the country's cable and broadband giants, which abhor regulation, against the likes of Facebook, Google, Netflix, Twitter and a host of startups that firmly believe net neutrality rules are critical to their existence.

This time, the agency's new Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, seeks to undo the work of his Democratic predecessor. In 2015, the Obama-era FCC subjected broadband providers to the same sort of utility-like regulations that long have applied to old-school telephone giants. The telecom industry vehemently opposed that approach, as did Pai, who then served as a commissioner. Now that he holds the reins to the FCC, he's scheduled a vote to begin debating a repeal of the rules on Thursday.

Of course, the legal wrangling won't end after Pai prevails, and he likely will. Another court challenge appears to await the FCC, for one thing, this time potentially coming from tech companies or consumer advocates who want the existing net neutrality rules to stay put. That's why Congress is so critical: It could put an end to the bickering. Instead, Democratic and Republican lawmakers aren't writing some new law — they're doubling down for a long fight.

Huddling with reporters in the basement of the U.S. Capitol earlier this month, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz put it plainly: "I just don't think [Republicans] understand the ferocity of the resistance that they're about to encounter."

When the FCC last considered net neutrality, roughly four million comments flooded the agency, many of which urged it to rein in the country's cable and broadband giants. This time around, lawmakers like Schatz, D-Hawaii, want to supercharge the grassroots outcry. The hope: They can generate an even louder, more aggressive groundswell of opposition, and in the process, imperil Republicans so politically that they have to compromise.

"Part of our approach right now is to educate the public about the need to weigh in," Schatz explained. Asked about a more peaceful solution in Congress to the fight, he added: "I think the aperture for legislating in this moment is vanishingly narrow."

One of his allies in the House of Representatives, Rep. Anna Eshoo, said she felt similarly. With legislation, she told Recode, it "doesn't look like the ingredients are there now."

Eshoo pointed to the tweets, Facebook posts and other social media backlash that greeted Republicans when they rolled back another effort by the Obama-era FCC: A set of rules that would have required internet providers to seek customers' permission before selling their web-browsing history to advertisers. In the aftermath of their efforts to repeal online-privacy protections, Eshoo said the political winds have shifted. "People have had it with being rolled over by interests that are absolutely massive and gigantic," she explained.

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In the minds of Republicans, though, it's Democrats who now need to compromise at a time when their party is not in charge. "I think part of it is their base: Their constituency has to be convinced the FCC is actually going to undo what was done by [Obama's FCC]," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the leader of a committee that oversees the agency, in an interview with Recode.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, another opponent of the FCC's rules, similarly chided Democrats. "I think that on issues, on several different fronts, the Democrats are trying to say that they are not going to work with Republicans," the Tennessee lawmaker said.

"I think as we move forward, they're going to hear from their constituents just like I have from my constituents," Blackburn added. She said the internet was "not broken" when the FCC sought to introduce its net neutrality rules in 2015. And Blackburn pointed to a number of folks who have come to her and said they "do not want a ban on paid prioritization." That's the idea that internet providers could charge Netflix, Hulu or other web companies for faster delivery of their content — online "fast lanes," in the words of Democrats, who want clear rules outlawing the practice.

Lacking much negotiating power in Republican-led Washington, though, Democrats are doubling down. Schatz and his colleagues even took to the Senate floor on Wednesday, mounting their latest public stand for net neutrality. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., for one, slammed Pai for his "short-sighted and in this case unworkable approach" to net neutrality. Fellow Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said the Obama administration's rules were "common sense."

In the House, Pallone insists that Democrats' early efforts to rile voters — and convince them to weigh in on one of Washington's wonkiest debates — has resonated. During a meeting last week with about 50 local Democratic activists in Middletown, New Jersey, the congressman said net neutrality was "the biggest issue they were concerned about."

Asked whether Congress could come together and fix the problem once and for all, however, Pallone repeatedly demurred. Instead, he said: "I think the Republicans don't understand how strongly people feel about this issue."

By Tony Romm, Recode.net.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.