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Broadband Package Partisan Split

House Commerce's Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act Seen as Prodding Cruz

The House Commerce Committee’s Wednesday advancement of the Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act (HR-3565) and panel leaders’ push to enact (see 2305170037) a bill to restore the FCC’s spectrum auction authority through June 30 (HR-3345) are aimed squarely at putting pressure on Senate negotiators to reach a deal, said lawmakers, congressional aides and others in interviews. The panel advanced an amended version of HR-3565 50-0 and unanimously approved five bipartisan broadband permitting measures but divided sharply along party lines on the American Broadband Deployment Act (HR-3557).

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There’s not likely to be much progress on HR-3565 unless Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, shifts from opposing major parts of the December agreement, lobbyists said. Cruz apparently supports allocating all proceeds from future spectrum auctions authorized under a new package to pay down the deficit rather than using any to pay for telecom priorities like next-generation 911 tech upgrades and the FCC's Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program, lobbyists said. Cruz's office didn't comment. There’s similarly little chance Congress will pass HR-3345 absent a change of heart from Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., about his objections to a temporary mandate restoration that ends before Sept. 30, lobbyists said.

House Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and House Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., filed HR-3565 with the full knowledge and blessing of Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a Senate panel aide said. HR-3565 hews closely to some elements of the spectrum package the three leaders failed to attach to the FY 2023 appropriations omnibus law (see 2212190069), including proposals to allocate up to $14.8 billion in future auction proceeds for NG-911 and up to $3.08 billion for the rip and replace program. The measure would renew the FCC’s auction authority through Sept. 30, 2026.

"We're creating a sense of urgency," Rodgers said Wednesday in a brief interview. "Our goal is to get the spectrum auction authority back in place. Every day that goes by" with it lapsed, "we're falling behind China, and American innovation is put on hold." HR-3565 “reflects” the “very careful balance” Cantwell, Rodgers and Pallone agreed to in December with then Senate Commerce ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a panel aide said. The House Armed Services Committee also signed off on the measure, the Senate Commerce aide said. “The goal has always been to get four-corners agreement” on a spectrum package as existed in December, but Cruz “is still not on board,” the aide said.

We’re waiting for the Senate to do whatever it expects to do,” said House Communications Subcommittee ranking member Doris Matsui, D-Calif., in an interview. “I’m just really frustrated with this whole thing” regardless of whether Cruz or another senator is the impediment to reaching a deal on a broader package. “It seems to me that we all know how important this is not only for our own national security but also our economic security. I feel that the two are really intertwined and we shouldn’t be working against each other here,” she said.

Rodgers emphasized during the markup that HR-3565 “is a product of long bipartisan, bicameral negotiations” and she was one of several lawmakers who cited the rip and replace funding as a priority. Many participants in the FCC’s program “could go out of business” if the agency must start prorating reimbursements beginning July 15 absent additional funding, which would disproportionately affect rural Americans, she said: It’s “imperative” to the U.S. economy and national security “that we move this legislation as quickly as possible.”

Enough is enough,” Matsui said. Using spectrum auction proceeds to fully fund rip and replace is a “national security” imperative since letting the FCC’s current shortfall remain would undercut providers’ “ability to remove Huawei and ZTE gear” from their networks. “Not acting is a direct threat to America’s national security,” she said. Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Richard Hudson, R-N.C., hailed HR-3565’s proposed NG-911 allocation.

HR-3565 is another instance in which “the House has acted to make sure the FCC’s auction authority” doesn’t lapse, including the House’s February passage of legislation to extend the mandate through May 19 (HR-1108), Rodgers said: “Hopefully the third time is the charm.” The authority lapsed in March after the Senate failed to pass HR-1108 because Rounds objected to moving it by unanimous consent over his concerns about DOD incumbents on the 3.1-3.45 GHz band that lawmakers want to at least partially repurpose for 5G (see 2303090074). It’s a “shame this has been hanging in the balance now for two months,” Pallone said. That uncertainty "cast doubt" on the FCC's "preparedness to continue future auction planning and on the U.S. commitment to wireless innovation," said House Communications Chairman Bob Latta, R-Ohio.

There’s also still not a clear path forward on HR-3345. House Commerce may still mark up the measure, but Rodgers told us she won’t seek a floor vote until “we have a commitment from the Senate that they’re going to act.” The House’s “floor time is vital and we already have” HR-1108 pending before the Senate even though its proposed extension date has passed, she said.

Permitting Fight

House Commerce voted 27-23 along party lines to advance an amended version of HR-3557, a package of GOP-led connectivity permitting revamp measures, amid strong Democratic opposition. The panel unanimously advanced five other broadband bills: the Facilitating the Deployment of Infrastructure with Greater Internet Transactions and Legacy Applications Act (HR-3283); Expediting Federal Broadband Deployment Reviews Act (HR-3293); Deploying Infrastructure with Greater Internet Transactions and Legacy Applications Act (HR-3299); Standard Fees to Expedite Evaluation and Streamlining Act (HR-3309); and Federal Broadband Deployment Tracking Act (HR-3343).

Several of my Republican colleagues said they wanted the bill to be bipartisan, but their expectation seemed to be that Democrats would join this harmful bill with no compromise reflecting Democratic priorities and concerns,” Pallone said. “Unfortunately, Republicans insisted on a package of giveaways that trample on state and local rights and consumer and environmental protections.” He, Matsui and other Democrats offered a series of amendments aimed at lessening some of HR-3557’s effects that House Commerce Republicans voted down. Pallone’s amendment aimed to remove language that instituted what he called “arbitrary deadlines” for state and local governments to reach decisions on permits.

Matsui warned HR-3557 would “reinforce a combative rather than a collaborative relationship with local governments,” which are concerned the measure would result in “heavy-handed pre-emption” of their authority. Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., voiced some interest in HR-3557 but said there’s “room for improvement” before he would back the measure. Its proposed shot clocks are “a little too tight” and proposed exemptions of broadband projects from National Environmental Policy Act reviews “are a little overbroad for me,” he said.

I am disappointed that my colleagues across the aisle are not joining us on” HR-3557 despite supporting the other broadband bills, Rodgers said. “Regardless, we are moving forward to deliver for the American people.” Congress “provided an unprecedented amount of spending” for broadband deployment, including $65 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, but “without reforms to the permitting processes, this money could be wasted,” she said. IIJA "was a missed opportunity" for a permitting revamp that lawmakers should now remedy, Latta said.

HR-3557 lead sponsor House Communications Vice Chair Buddy Carter, R-Ga., said the measure is “an important step in unleashing innovation.” Congress needs “to provide accountability” to federal agencies tasked with distributing federal broadband money “and certainty to providers” about whether state and local governments are going to approve their construction permits, he said. Carter repeatedly opposed Democrats’ proposed amendments to the bill during the meeting.