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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is stepping down, setting the stage for a GOP majority on Trump’s first day

Tom Wheeler (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The nation's top telecommunications regulator said Thursday that he will step down at the end of President Obama's term, paving the way for President-elect Donald Trump to nominate a successor when he takes office in January.

Tom Wheeler, the Obama appointee who has led the agency for three years, was the driving force behind a number of sweeping regulations that aimed to inject competition into the telecommunications sector. Wheeler's signature battle with conservatives over net neutrality ultimately mandated that cable and telecom companies should abide by some of the same rules when providing Internet service as when providing phone service.

Wheeler's departure Jan. 20 will leave the agency shorthanded and lopsided — with two Republican commissioners and one Democratic commissioner remaining — meaning that conservatives will enjoy an advantage at the agency, as some there have vowed to apply a “regulatory weed-whacker” to the FCC's policies.

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“Sitting in this chair has been the greatest privilege of my professional career,” Wheeler said Thursday during his final FCC monthly open meeting. “I'm grateful to President Obama for the opportunity to serve and for the confidence he placed in me.”

A broader rollback of Wheeler's policies appears likely, analysts say, particularly on net neutrality. Although it could take some time, potentially beginning with a decision by Trump's FCC simply not to enforce the regulation, the rules have long been targeted by Republicans as an example of government overreach. If net neutrality falls, some of Wheeler's other initiatives — such as rules compelling Internet providers not to abuse customer data — could also collapse because of their reliance on net neutrality for legal force.

Democrats could slow the Republicans if Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn also steps down from the agency, analysts said. Stripping the FCC of all three of its Democrats could deny the Republican majority a quorum necessary to do business, said Berin Szoka, president of the right-leaning think tank TechFreedom. But a spokesman for Clyburn said Thursday that the commissioner intends to serve out the remainder of her term, which expires in the middle of next year.

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The agency's two Republicans, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, were gracious in their remarks about the outgoing chairman Thursday, although they entered the meeting with smiles and a pep in their step.

“There's no question Chairman Wheeler made the most of his time here at the Federal Communications Commission,” Pai said. “He was a tenacious worker. … I salute his time in public service, and I look forward to keeping in touch with him.”

Relations between the agency's liberals and conservatives have been strained during Wheeler's tenure, with commissioners often refusing to talk to one another and many votes being passed on 3-to-2 Democratic majorities. Wheeler's defenders say it is a result of the chairman's relentless drive to expand consumer protections; critics have accused him of stubborn partisanship and political favoritism toward new and insurgent industries, such as companies involved in the growing market for online video.

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The FCC's political divisions sometimes put even Democrats on opposing sides. Jessica Rosenworcel, the third liberal on the panel, occasionally clashed with Wheeler on issues such as an ill-fated proposal that would have forced the cable industry to let companies such as Google and Amazon build their own set-top boxes. These boxes would have competed directly with the equipment many cable companies require consumers to rent for a monthly fee.

Rosenworcel's nomination for another term collapsed last week after the U.S. Senate failed to vote on her position before adjourning for the year. She is expected to depart the FCC by Dec. 31.

“I have often referred to Commissioner Rosenworcel as the intellectual lodestone of the commission,” Wheeler said Thursday. “She is whip smart … and she always seems to be three, maybe five steps ahead in her thinking.”

Wheeler credited Rosenworcel for being an early advocate of aggressive net-neutrality rules, saying she was among the first proponents for re-categorizing Internet providers under Title II of the Communications Act. The 2015 move, which was hotly contested by Republicans, allowed the FCC to regulate broadband companies as if they were phone carriers.

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“I remember you saying to me, 'No, the way to go is Title II,'" Wheeler told Rosenworcel. Wheeler had initially proposed a weaker form of net neutrality but was pushed toward stronger measures by a populist public-opinion campaign that also included President Obama's urging action.

But as Trump's FCC prepares to take over with a Republican majority on the first day of his administration, the fate of Wheeler's legacy remains in question. Wheeler largely dodged questions from reporters Thursday about the future of his policies. But in an unusually long set of prepared remarks, he made an impassioned argument about the importance and difficulty of public service.

While there is no legal requirement, it is customary for an FCC chairman to step down at the beginning of a new presidential administration, though he or she may choose to stay on as a regular commissioner. Asked whether he had considered doing so, Wheeler insisted he was upholding a commitment he had made to Congress in March to honor the historical precedent.

Wheeler had weighed not stepping down in anticipation of an election victory by Hillary Clinton, according to an FCC official speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the chairman's private comments. Had the election gone the other way, Wheeler had hoped to continue serving as Clinton's FCC chairman.

"The American people decided they wanted something else," Wheeler told reporters. "And I stuck with my commitment."