Senate Republicans left town for the last time in 2016 Saturday without renominating Democratic Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel — a move they’ll likely regret if Chairman Tom Wheeler decides to stick around into next year.
Lawmakers barely made a deadline to pass a bill funding the government from Saturday into next spring before recessing until next year, at the same time foregoing their last chance to renominate Rosenworcel and concluding the year-long battle over her reconfirmation. Her term expires before the new Congress is scheduled to begin on Jan. 3.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly circulated a motion for cloture on Rosenworcel’s vote Thursday but didn’t file it on the Senate floor, setting her nomination up for a last-minute Saturday vote. That left a unanimous consent vote as their only option, which many predicted was unlikely given the number of Republicans that have stalled her vote for the last year over Wheeler’s hesitancy to give his own departure date.
Multiple outlets including The Hill reported Thursday Wheeler finally gave that assurance earlier this week to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, saying he would “step down immediately” if Republicans would approve Rosenworcel for another five-year term at the FCC.
The same day Thune told Morning Consult it could be too late for a pledge from Wheeler, who’s waffled on direct questions from Thune and others on whether he’ll follow precedent and step down at the beginning of the new administration.
“My sense is that we’re kind of up against the clock now,” Thune said. “And it’s going to be very hard, even if Wheeler was agreeable to stepping down, to be able to get all this done between now and the time we go out.”
Though Thune’s committee approved Rosenworcel a year ago other Republicans including Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin oppose her renomination altogether, preferring instead to let Trump fill her seat after he takes office in January and give the FCC a 2-1 Republican majority in the meantime.
Republicans may come to regret their chosen course if Wheeler decides to stay on at the FCC, something he could do well into 2018 when his term expires. Rosenworcel, a former Senate staffer with support on both sides of the aisle, has demonstrated a willingness to break from Democrats and work toward the middle, opposing one of Wheeler’s landmark agenda items to shake up the set-top box market. She ultimately forced the chairman to drop the proposal staunchly opposed by Republicans at the last minute.
Wheeler, who’s set a 20-year record for the most party line votes in modern commission history, is unlikely to be so accommodating to Republicans’ agenda — a wish list Trump FCC transition team members and Republican FCC Commissioners have already signaled will start with a rollback of Wheeler’s legacy, including its cornerstone, net neutrality.
“On the day that the Title II Order was adopted, I said that ‘I don’t know whether this plan will be vacated by a court, reversed by Congress, or overturned by a future commission. But I do believe that its days are numbered,'” Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai said Thursday. “Today, I am more confident than ever that this prediction will come true.”
Wheeler, already reticent in committing to leave, has signaled he may not let his legacy be undone without a fight. The chairman blasted Republicans for calling on the agency to halt the passage of major rules until Trump takes office, and last week moved to make what could be a precedent setting enforcement action against AT&T for zero-rating, which the agency is on the verge of deeming a violation of net neutrality.
Either Pai or his Republican colleague Commissioner Michael O’Rielly will take over as chairman next year, but remaining Democrat Mignon Clyburn and Wheeler, should he choose to stay, will have equal voting power until Trump appoints another Republican. Trump and congressional Republicans’ aggressive day one agenda of funding the government and repealing the Affordable Care Act could stall yet another confirmation vote, giving the two Democrats the potential opportunity to block Republicans into 2017.
As Thune himself noted Thursday, it appears Wheeler thus far “wasn’t in any hurry to get out of there.”