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Republicans are about to ‘Benghazi all over again’ on net neutrality

Federal Communication Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler waits for a hearing at the FCC headquarters in Washington on Dec. 11. (Photo credit: AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

A week after the head of the Federal Communications Commission said he wants to apply strong rules on Internet providers, a Republican strategy is emerging to undermine the proposal.

The Republicans' new strategy looks much like the old: Argue that the FCC's proposed rules will stifle investment, hurt innovation and raise prices for consumers. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, blasted the draft regulations as overly "interventionist" and "a gift to trial lawyers" in a rare news conference Tuesday.

But the game plan also comes with a twist: Critics will seek to tie the net neutrality proposal -- which aims to ban the blocking or slowing of Internet traffic -- to President Obama. The White House, they say, inappropriately pushed an independent agency to consider far more aggressive regulations than what it had initially proposed.

The two-pronged assault on the administration will be louder and far more combative than anything previously seen from conservatives on the issue, officials from inside and outside the agency say.

"It's going to be Benghazi all over again," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the consumer group Public Knowledge.

Post tech reporter Hayley Tsukayama explains the idea of net neutrality and why its future could affect every Internet user. (Video: Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

The analogy isn't far off. In recent days, Senate and House Republicans have demanded the FCC turn over all correspondence between the agency and the White House on net neutrality, in an effort to uncover evidence of illegal coordination. And Nevada Republican Dean Heller, a member of the Senate committee that oversees the FCC, has introduced a bill that would force the FCC to reveal its draft net neutrality regulations weeks before they're scheduled to be made public at the agency's Feb. 26 monthly meeting.

The FCC declined to comment on the Republican efforts. A White House spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

In another sign of how united conservatives are in their opposition to the proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Republicans on the commission aren't likely to suggest a compromise version to the draft rules before the scheduled vote. Asked whether he'd seek proposed changes, Pai told reporters Tuesday that Wheeler has done little to solicit his input, and there's no reason to think his ideas would be accepted now.

"I'm not hopeful that over the next two weeks we'll be able to change course," Pai said.

The scope of the Republican offensive extends beyond the Beltway. Last week, Robert McDowell, a former Republican FCC commissioner, traveled to New York, where he met with hedge funds and Wall Street analysts to warn that the FCC's proposed rules could lead to the regulation of the prices that Internet providers charge consumers.

"That's the Achilles heel for broadband providers," McDowell said in an interview, adding that "Republicans will use every last minute" to persuade the FCC not to adopt the proposed rules. That will include last-minute lobbying, ad campaigns, letters from Capitol Hill and everything else in the standard Washington playbook.

Wheeler said last week that his proposal ensures the ability of consumers to access the services they want, while not unfairly burdening broadband providers.

But Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has called the FCC proposal a government "power grab" prompted by the "bully tactics of political activists and the president himself." Thune's uncharacteristically blunt statement foreshadows a much wider confrontation between the GOP and liberals who view net neutrality as a populist issue.

Thune and his counterpart in the House, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), have been talking to key Democrats about legislation that would preempt FCC action on neutrality bill. But many Democrats are refusing to play along because they oppose a provision that would restrict the FCC's authority.

In some ways, the Republican push will resemble the sustained public pressure applied by net neutrality proponents to the FCC in the months leading up to Wheeler's proposal. Only this time, the arguments will revolve around the proposal's potential economic consequences and the alleged impropriety of the White House in intervening on the issue.

"Over the next two weeks it will be crazy," said an industry official, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely. "The commissioners and their legal teams, their calendars are filling up with meetings."

President Obama issued a video statement describing his efforts to urge the Federal Communications Commission to keep the internet open and free. (Video: via YouTube)