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Recent Attacks Invalid: Cantwell

Senate Commerce Sets Valentine's Day Sohn Hearing; 4 Democrats' Recusal Sought

The Senate Commerce Committee set its third hearing on FCC nominee Gigi Sohn for Tuesday, in line with Democrats’ plans to move the candidate swiftly through the committee (see 2302030073) in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the Senate’s 2022 confirmation stall. President Joe Biden renominated Sohn in January after the new Congress convened (see 2301030060). The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. in 253 Russell. The American Accountability Foundation, among the most vocal groups opposing Sohn urged four Democratic senators Wednesday to recuse themselves from voting on her confirmation because the nominee donated to their campaigns. Sohn supporters called AAF’s donation claims overblown.

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We have a lot of work to do,” especially because the Senate has been off to a very slow start while waiting to pass an organizing resolution, said Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in an interview Tuesday. The Senate approved organizing resolutions last week by unanimous consent. “We have a busy hearing schedule” ahead and “we want to get these nominations done and out the door as quick as we can” so the committee can move on to matters like an FAA reauthorization bill, Cantwell said. Senate Commerce scheduled its organizational meeting Thursday, making the Sohn panel one of its first formal hearings of this Congress. The meeting follows Cantwell's selection of subpanel chairs, including renaming Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., as Communications Subcommittee chairman.

Panel Republicans voiced dismay about plans to move on Sohn before the Senate leaves on a recess during the week of Feb. 20; they pushed for a delay into March (see 2301260068). “We were trying to get that hearing delayed, but ultimately it sounds like Cantwell” wasn’t willing to allow that long of an extension to Republicans due to pressure from Sohn’s supporters, said Communications ranking member John Thune, R-S.D. Commerce ranking member Ted Cruz of Texas and other Republicans argued they needed more time to adequately prepare to question Sohn. The nominee faced significant GOP criticism during her 2021 and 2022 confirmation hearings (see 2202090070).

Cantwell questioned the validity of recent commentary about Sohn’s role as a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which the nominee’s supporters say are in bad faith and have crossed the line into veiled personal attacks on her sexual orientation (see 2301310062). Sohn, if confirmed, would be the first openly LGBTQ FCC commissioner. “What does that have to do with” Sohn’s future role as an FCC commissioner, Cantwell said: “She’s a good nominee” and her opponents’ EFF claims aren’t a valid argument against her joining the commission.

Sohn’s “donations to your campaigns and your acceptance of her contributions during the pendency of her confirmation have irrevocably corrupted the decision-making process and made an objective vote on her confirmation impossible,” AAF President Tom Jones wrote Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Raphael Warnock of Georgia. AAF has spent more than $33,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads opposing Sohn since Jan. 25. Three of those ads, which specifically cite the recent EFF criticisms, mainly focused on Meta users in Arizona, Nevada and Montana. The group doesn’t disclose its funding sources.

Federal Election Commission records show Sohn donated a total of $550 to Warnock’s reelection campaign since Biden first nominated her, which is well below federal statutory limits. In that time, she also contributed $200 to Bennet and $100 each to Cortez Masto and Fetterman via Democratic political fundraising platform ActBlue. She previously donated to several current Democratic Commerce members, including Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jon Tester of Montana. Other contributions include $100 in 2019 to the first campaign of Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and $100 in 2018 to the failed reelection campaign of then-Senate Commerce ranking member and current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, D-Fla. Cortez Masto and Kelly are among a handful of Senate Democrats who are undecided on confirming Sohn.

Those “donations were not illegal,” but “they were unethical,” Jones said: They “will undermine the people’s confidence in your and her decisions by creating the perception that campaign contributions are part of lawmaker’s decision-making process to support her, and that Ms. Sohn has a bias towards certain lawmakers, those who she has donated to, and is incapable of rendering impartial decisions.” Sohn and the senators’ offices didn’t comment.

Public Knowledge Government Affairs Director Greg Guice called AAF’s interpretation of Sohn’s political donations a “nonstory” and "another fake controversy." She contributed “pretty low-level” amounts of money to Democratic senators in 2022, especially in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ahead of his 2017 confirmation, Guice said: “This is not an illegal act” and “it’s not even unethical” since FCC nominees aren’t barred from making political contributions while they’re in the confirmation process.

National Sheriffs’ Association leaders also criticized Sohn, writing Cantwell and Cruz Monday that she “failed to provide” support to law enforcement officers “by using social media to promote alarming statements that denigrate law enforcement." NSA President Greg Champagne and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Jim Skinner cited Sohn’s past Twitter activity they perceive as anti-police, including liking what they called a “troubling" tweet that it’s “funny how one bad protester labels the whole movement, but a few bad cops are never meant to represent all cops.” The Fraternal Order of Police also cited Sohn’s social media activity as a reason to oppose her.