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'Bridge Too Far:' O'Rielly

ACP Discharge Petition Backers 'Very Close' to Needed GOP Support: Clarke

Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act (HR-6929/S-3565) lead House sponsor Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., told us she's cautiously optimistic ahead of the opening of a discharge petition Thursday to force a floor vote on the measure (H.Res. 1119). HR-6929/S-3565 proposes allocating $7 billion for FY 2024 to the ailing FCC connectivity program. Thursday marks the end of a seven-legislative-day waiting period before Clarke can begin collecting signatures on the petition, which would require backing from at least 218 members before becoming effective (see 2404100075). Republican observers, even those who support giving ACP stopgap money, are skeptical the discharge petition bid will succeed.

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We are very close” to getting Republican HR-6929 co-sponsors to commit to signing the discharge petition, Clarke told us. “I don’t want to jinx myself, but I think we will have quite a few” declaring support. “We have a good feeling” about our prospects, she said: If the backing is bipartisan, “then we will definitely have more than 218” needed to clear the House threshold. Resolution backers would need to wait an additional seven legislative days once the petition gets 218 signatures before a member could call for a floor vote.

Twenty-two Republicans were among the 226 co-sponsors of HR-6929 as of Wednesday afternoon. That means Clarke must get at least eight of them to sign the discharge petition to force action if she’s able to get backing from all 213 House Democrats who are eligible to vote on the floor. A majority of the 22 Republicans represent swing districts that Democrats are targeting as potential pickups in the November election. Three of the 22 -- Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (Puerto Rico), Del. James Moylan (Guam) and Del. Aumua Radewagen (American Samoa) -- cannot sign discharge petitions or participate in floor votes. The other 20 House Republicans’ offices didn’t comment.

The House-side New Democrat Coalition increased pressure on House GOP leaders Wednesday to bring HR-6929 to the floor ahead of the starting gun on the discharge petition. “We are disappointed that despite the incredible impact on the 23 million households that have enrolled across the country, House Republican Leadership has blocked any consideration of the funding it needs to keep running, pushing us towards the program's extinction,” said NDC members Reps. Angie Craig (Minn.) and Nikki Budzinski (Ill.) in a letter to House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La.

NDC Chair Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., told reporters Wednesday she believes “it’s no coincidence that Republicans don’t want to renew” ACP because it’s “one of the most popular programs” enacted under the Biden administration “during an election year.” ACP’s backers are “certainly hoping” some Republicans will back fast-tracking program funding because “they’re getting some phone calls in their offices” from constituents who receive the subsidy, she said: “I think this is a leadership decision not to bring [HR-6929] to the floor and I think the rank-and-file Republicans need to respond and work with us.”

Nat Purser, Public Knowledge government affairs policy advocate, told us she’s detected “some openness” among HR-6929’s Republican co-sponsors to signing the discharge petition, especially GOP members from the New York congressional delegation. Seven New York Republicans currently co-sponsor the measure, including original backers Reps. Anthony D’Esposito, Mike Lawler and Marc Molinaro. “There are definitely some people who are saying ‘I’d rather let it bake a couple of days before I get on'” the petition, Purser said: “I would just say ‘If you sign on early, you encourage other Republicans to sign on.’ Somebody has to be the one to take the first leap of faith.”

USF Group Progress

House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Bob Latta, R-Ohio, waved off the discharge petition and told us he believes a bicameral Universal Service Fund revamp working group’s effort on a related legislative package is close to reaching a deal that could be a consensus vehicle for bolstering ACP. The group is “looking at the end of next month” as a deadline for reaching a USF revamp deal, so “we’ve got to have something before then,” he said: “We’re trying to get this thing worked out” so ACP funding can come from a “good piece of legislation that the House and Senate have worked on” instead of circumventing the legislative process.

We know there’s a time limit” because ACP’s funding will fully exhaust in May, Latta told us. “We also know that you’ve got to make sure that dollars are spent wisely.” Republicans have repeatedly raised that issue as reason to oppose further money for the program without changes to its rules. “You don’t want duplication” of funding from other federal broadband programs, Latta said. He and other USF working group members have made progress in their work on draft legislation that could allow the group to file a bill within a matter of weeks, lobbyists told us.

The USF working group’s draft would “fuse” the existing Lifeline program with ACP, lobbyists said. It would eliminate ACP’s $100 device stipend and change the threshold for program eligibility to households that have a combined income at 135% of the federal poverty line, lobbyists said. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act set the eligibility threshold at 200%. The proposal would also eliminate language that automatically confers ACP eligibility on households with children who attend schools with an Agriculture Department Community Eligibility Provision designation to provide free breakfasts and lunches for all enrolled students, lobbyists said. The draft also leans toward revamping USF’s contribution apparatus to include more tech sector entities, lobbyists said.

A discharge petition is probably a bridge too far for Republicans” and that means it is “probably not ultimately going to be successful” as a way of fast-tracking ACP funding, said Republican former FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, a supporter of allocating stopgap money. “I’m a former” House and Senate aide “and I know the institution pretty well. There are certain structural” processes undergirding both chambers and a discharge petition is an “atomic bomb that’s not traditionally done or been supported” by whatever party has control. “It’s a Hail Mary attempt” to forestall ACP’s wind-down after supporters failed to get the money included in FY24 spending measures (see 2403210002), he said in an interview. “Maybe there’s an opportunity in the future” to restart the money.

I just don’t see a world where enough Republicans would come out and support a discharge petition” on HR-6929 “even if they support the underlying bill,” said Digital First Project Executive Director Nathan Leamer. “There’s more of an interest in” seeking funding in conjunction with a broader ACP and USF revamp now and although stopgap funding “is clearly a priority for many,” there’s likely to be a reluctance to using the petition “on everything” when lawmakers employ the mechanism on higher-priority issues like foreign aid. “They have to pick their battles,” he told us. Everything involved in the foreign aid petition debate has been “really germane to those issues,” so using the mechanism on ACP as well “almost seems to be a separate conversation.”