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Congressional Democrats are itching for a fight over net neutrality

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This week the center of gravity in the net neutrality debate shifts to Capitol Hill, where hearings in both chambers are pitting Democrats against Republicans over the future of the Internet. Here's how you can expect the next stage of the battle to unfold.

President Obama's top telecom regulator, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, says he'll submit new proposed rules for Internet providers in February and that the Federal Communications Commission will vote on the issue later that month.

To get ahead of what they say will be a "heavy-handed" proposal, Republicans, led by Sen. John Thune (S.D.) and Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), have unveiled a net neutrality bill of their own. This bill, if it passes, would head off any meaningful FCC action, limiting the agency's ability to regulate broadband in the future. That has some consumer advocates fuming, so the question now is what chances the bill might have.

And that brings us to Wednesday's hearings. An important sign of the bill's fortunes will be whether Democrats on the two committees with jurisdiction — the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Energy & Commerce Committee — support the GOP proposal. From what we've seen of the hearings so far, Democrats seem willing to engage. But with Wheeler expected to propose aggressive rules that are much closer to what Obama asked for than what large Internet providers would prefer, Democrats have an incentive to not sign onto the GOP proposal before they've seen the FCC's draft rules.

The top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), said he disagreed with calls for net neutrality legislation ahead of the FCC's proposal.

"I do not share that concern," Nelson said. "It is more important to get this issue right than it is to get it done right now."

Nelson said he's particularly worried about provisions in the GOP bill that would ban the FCC from ever regulating Internet providers like phone service providers.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told reporters Tuesday he was open to discussing alternatives with Republicans but that conservatives' reactions so far to Obama's plan have been "hilarious" and "unnecessary."

"I don't see a pathway [to net neutrality] but through Title II," said Booker, referring to a portion of the Communications Act that would give FCC broad authority to regulate Internet providers.

Democrats with major tech companies in their districts, such as Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), are — not surprisingly — slamming the GOP bill. "The majority’s proposal is to purposely tie the hands of the FCC by prohibiting them from reclassifying broadband under Title II," said Eshoo.

Democratic leaders on the committees are also showing skepticism. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) is the new top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Although we don't know much about Pallone's positions on telecom issues yet — some analysts have suggested he's aligned more closely with industry — he signaled Wednesday that he'd resist efforts to undermine the FCC through the GOP legislation.

"I certainly don't think that'll serve to protect consumers," said Pallone. "The FCC must remain the vigilant cop on the beat."

The second most senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), vowed to introduce his own net neutrality legislation "in the not-too-distant future" — indicating he won't go along with the GOP, either, if it tries to draw new boundaries around the FCC.

Policy analysts say any net neutrality bill will have to be a bipartisan effort if it's to be signed by the president. But Republicans won't likely convince their liberal colleagues to support a net neutrality bill before the FCC introduces its new proposal. So it looks like passing the GOP bill won't be as quick as some might hope.

"It has taken the FCC nearly 13 months" to draw up a proposal, said Pallone. "Congress cannot be expected to work it all out in 13 days."