Cantwell Presses on With Feb. 9 Sohn Hearing
Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell of Washington told us she plans to press forward with a Feb. 9 follow-up hearing on FCC nominee Gigi Sohn (our bulletin is here), despite misgivings from some fellow committee Democrats and other supporters of the nominee. Commerce delayed a planned Wednesday vote on Sohn and Democratic FTC nominee Alvaro Bedoya because Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., is recovering from a stroke (see 2202010070).
Senate Commerce advanced a slate of other Biden administration nominees Wednesday on bipartisan voice votes, including four picks for the CPB board: Vice Chair Laura Ross, MacArthur Foundation Director-Journalism and Media Kathy Im, CPB ex-member Elizabeth Sembler and Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group Chairman-CEO Tom Rothman.
Many Commerce members touted a spirit of bipartisanship during the markup and spoke highly of Lujan. Panel ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said he and others “wish our collective best” to Lujan and are “hoping to see him back very soon.” There’s no official estimate of when Lujan might be well enough to return.
The additional Sohn hearing will focus on “whatever questions people have” about the nominee, including her commitment to temporarily recuse herself from some FCC proceedings involving retransmission consent and broadcast copyright matters (see 2201270073), Cantwell told us. The partly virtual hearing will begin at 10 a.m. in 253 Russell, Commerce said Wednesday. Wicker began pushing last month for further Sohn testimony (see 2201180064).
“Information is important and the point is to get [Sohn] through the process and to the floor,” Cantwell said. Everybody “has a right to review the nominees, they have the right to give the president their opinion, they have the right to give whatever concerns they have, but I think we have some very solid nominees that have been held up just on party-line votes,” Cantwell said: With Lujan “out, that will make it more challenging until he returns.”
Cantwell told us she was contemplating a new Sohn hearing before news of Lujan’s stroke because Senate Commerce Republicans were “talking about not showing up at all” at the Wednesday markup, which would have denied the panel a quorum to proceed on any of the nominees up for votes. Senate aides cautioned that Lujan’s absence was also part of the equation that led Cantwell to agree to another Sohn appearance.
“We had to figure out some way to get people comfortable with the information” about Sohn’s recusals and her role as a board member for Locast operator Sports Fans Coalition, an issue that first prompted NAB to seek additional concessions (see 2111290060), Cantwell said: “It’s all about getting people to show up and vote,” especially given the committee has to rely on some bipartisan support to advance nominees while Lujan is out. “Even our members today asked me, ‘Oh, she didn’t have this recusal before,’” Cantwell later told reporters. “There’s just a lot of information, people want to catch up."
Wicker acknowledged the boycott threat Wednesday but told us “let’s let bygones be bygones.” The additional hearing “might” shift what had been expected to be a 14-14 tie on Sohn, Wicker said: “A recusal from major areas of jurisdiction for a period of years does raise questions about whether this is the absolute best choice” for an FCC seat. “There are literally dozens of qualified persons who would not have to recuse themselves and who would not have to answer questions about settlements and things of that nature. I’m not sure she can get all the Democrats’ votes” at this point, he said.
“I’m glad we are” going to get a second Sohn hearing, said Senate Communications ranking member John Thune, R-S.D. “We need to ask further questions and probe some of these connections that she has that require her to recuse herself on so many issues” related to the broadcasting industry. The panel could be “an opportunity” to also “find out some of her philosophical leanings on the big issues” in telecom policy, including nailing down “her positions on net neutrality and how far she wants to go with that” given her past statements have “been problematic” for Republicans, Thune said.
Cantwell told reporters Tuesday she hopes Senate Commerce members will use the additional delay to supplement the additional hearing with one-on-one meetings with Sohn. “A lot of members didn’t meet with Gigi before, even though she had multiple requests in to them,” Cantwell said. “I think now that there’s a recusal, they’ll hopefully meet with her and we’ll see if we can get some bipartisan support.”
Some Commerce Democrats questioned the need for another hearing even with Lujan out but don’t believe it will harm Sohn’s confirmation prospects.
“Obviously, I’d prefer to move as quickly as possible, but I have no doubt that Ms. Sohn will allay whatever concerns there may be, and we will be able to move forward as expeditiously as possible,” said Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii. Consumer Protection Subcommittee Chairman Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said he will “defer” to Cantwell’s judgment on the need for the additional hearing.
Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada, who shifted to publicly supporting Sohn in early January after initially being undecided (see 2201050056), told us she had intended to vote for Sohn Wednesday if the nominee had been on Commerce’s docket and would still back her after the new hearing. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the only Commerce Democrat not publicly supportive of Sohn, didn’t comment.
“I had a great conversation” with Sohn in December “and feel confident that she addressed all of my concerns” at that time by agreeing to meet with Nevada broadcasters and committing to uphold all retrans laws if confirmed to the FCC, Rosen told us. “I think Ms. Sohn has gone around and spoken personally” with many Commerce members already “and I think we’ve pretty well vetted her,” Rosen said. “I’m not sure we need another hearing. But if we have one, we will just continue to ask the same questions and hope that those senators who still have concerns” about specific issues that she will “recuse herself from” and “get their questions answered.”
Free Press sought to highlight momentum for Sohn Wednesday and warned Cantwell against agreeing to another hearing. “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and as the outpouring of support for [Sohn] makes clear, it isn’t partisan outside of” Wicker’s office and certain publications opposed to the nominee, said FP General Counsel Matt Wood. Lujan’s “recovery takes precedence, as it should,” but Cantwell “must commit publicly to moving ahead with the confirmation vote in her committee immediately upon his return. There is absolutely no reason to buckle to” Wicker’s “blatant obstructionism and his ridiculous requests for additional hearings.”