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High anxiety hits Senate over raising debt ceiling


Senators are growing anxious that they might have to vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling in a matter of weeks given new estimates that the government could hit its borrowing limit earlier than expected. The debt limit was exceeded earlier this year, and the Treasury Department is now taking steps known as “extraordinary measures” to prevent the government from going over its borrowing limit.

Lawmakers had hoped they would be able to avoid the politically painful vote to raise the debt ceiling until the fall — and that it could be packaged with other legislation to fund the government and set budget caps on spending. But that could be much more difficult if Treasury’s ability to prevent the government from going over its borrowing limit ends in mid-September — just days after lawmakers would be set to return from their summer recess.

“I think we need to hustle to a caps deal as soon as we possibly can and include the debt limit in it, no doubt,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The debt limit has been far from the front page and has been essentially put on the back burner as lawmakers debate the treatment of migrants at the border and battle over nominations and spending bills. Members of the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday were openly skeptical about whether their colleagues would jump on the issue.

“The question is, will anybody act until the urgency is on top of us?” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “We need to avoid the brink.”

Failing to raise the debt ceiling would be a catastrophic move that could roil worldwide financial markets. Shelby said the mere possibility that the debt ceiling could be breached in September should give “more sense of urgency” to Congress taking quick action, while Capito said it was not in “anybody’s best interest to have that fight in September up against the debt limit.”

A study released this week by the Bipartisan Policy Center said there was a “significant risk” that the government could reach its debt limit in early September unless Congress raises the cap. The estimate was a shift from its previous forecast, which estimated the debt limit could be reached in October or November, which would give Congress more breathing room.

The earlier timeline comes after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Congress in May that the debt ceiling increase could happen in “late summer.”

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said it would be “preferable” for Congress to deal with the debt ceiling before leaving for the August recess, adding that a mid-September deadline “puts a lot of pressure” on lawmakers to act.

“We could write a caps deal and attach the debt limit to it, to kind of get those issues resolved before August, which I think would be in everybody’s best interest,” Thune said.

Getting a deal done this month leaves little room for error, and few are optimistic such a timeline will be met. The House is scheduled to leave town on July 26, while the Senate is set for vacation on Aug. 2. Lawmakers would return after Labor Day, on Sept. 9, which could give them less than a week to cobble together a deal.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday didn’t rule out action on the debt ceiling this month.

“We’ll see how those conversations go. We certainly do not want any default on the part of the full faith and credit of the United States of America,” she said. “That’s never been what we’ve been about, but there are those on the Republican side who have embraced that again and again. So, we’ll see.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared confident during a weekly leadership press conference that lawmakers wouldn’t let the United States default on its debt, but he didn’t offer a clear pathway to approving a debt ceiling increase.

“Time is running out, and if we’re going to avoid having either short- or long-term CR or either a short- or long-term debt ceiling increase, it’s time that we got serious on a bipartisan basis to try to work this out and not have the kind of chaos that goes along with our inability to come together on these important issues,” McConnell said. A CR, or continuing resolution, would fund the government at current spending levels.

Asked if Congress had to raise the debt ceiling before the August recess, McConnell sidestepped the question, saying lawmakers are in close contact with Mnuchin about the timeline but that he doesn’t “think there’s any chance that we’ll allow the country to default.”

Broader budget talks on the debt ceiling and government funding unraveled last month, with the White House floating a one-year CR and debt ceiling hike. Senate Republicans are hoping to jumpstart the negotiations with new meetings as soon as this week, though nothing was on the books as of Tuesday afternoon.

The spending deal is also crucial, as spending cuts triggered by an earlier budgetary law would snap into effect in January if Congress does not approve new spending levels. The debt ceiling fight has always had an earlier deadline, but the new estimates are moving it up further.

Shelby argued that it makes sense to link the two issues but didn’t rule out that the debt ceiling could get a stand-alone vote, or be attached to another must-pass bill, in a time crunch.

“The path is a good question,” Shelby said. “You could raise the debt ceiling without getting a caps deal, but it makes more sense to me that if you can run them parallel, they are two big issues staring us in the face.”


FCC head unveils plan to roll back net neutrality


FCC head unveils plan to roll back net neutrality / © Getty

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday revealed his plans for rolling back net neutrality, one of the most controversial items up for consideration at the agency.

During a speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Pai said he plans to hand regulatory jurisdiction of broadband providers back to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an agency that critics say is less prepared to handle it.

Originally passed under Democrat Tom Wheeler’s chairmanship, the net neutrality rules — more formally referred to as the Open Internet Order of 2015 — set restrictions on internet service providers (ISPs) prioritizing certain kinds of web traffic and throttling others. The rules were broadly aimed at establishing a level playing field for companies on the internet.

Broadband companies quickly praised Pai’s proposal.

“We applaud FCC Chairman Pai’s initiative to remove this stifling regulatory cloud over the internet,” AT&T said in a blog post. “Businesses large and small will have a clearer path to invest more in our nation’s broadband infrastructure under Chairman Pai’s leadership.”

The company said that despite the proposed changes, AT&T “continues to support the fundamental tenets of net neutrality.”

Broadband provider Charter Communications also expressed support for net neutrality principles.

“Charter’s support for an open internet is an integral part of our commitment to deliver a superior broadband experience to our customers,” Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge said. “That will never change.”

Notably, Pai did not once utter the phrase “net neutrality” during his remarks, opting to refer to the principles as the “open Internet” instead.

Telecommunications companies and Republicans at the FCC have argued that net neutrality is an example of the government overstepping its boundaries with onerous regulations that would stifle broadband innovation and investment.

Republicans in Congress also expressed their support for Pai’s plan.

“We have long said that imposing a Depression-era, utility-style regulatory structure onto the internet was the wrong approach, and we applaud Chairman Pai’s efforts to roll back these misguided regulations,” Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.); House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.); Senate Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.); and House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said in a joint statement.

“Consumers want an open internet that doesn’t discriminate on content and protects free speech and consumer privacy,” they added.

“It’s now time for Republicans and Democrats, internet service providers, edge providers, and the internet community as a whole to come together and work toward a legislative solution that benefits consumers and the future of the internet.”

Pai’s proposed reforms tackle one of the most controversial portions of net neutrality: the reclassification of broadband providers as “common carriers,” which gives the FCC the authority to regulate them. Broadband service providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have hammered these rules, arguing they are unnecessary and that the FCC should not regulate them.

The Republican chairman appears to be taking that argument to heart. Pai said his proposed changes would reinvigorate broadband investment, which he said had declined since the Open Internet Order had passed in 2015.

“So what happened after the Commission adopted Title II?” he asked.

“Sure enough, infrastructure investment declined,” Pai said. “Reduced investment means fewer Americans will have high-speed Internet access.  It means fewer American will have jobs. And it means less competition for consumers.”

“It’s basic economics: The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”

The FCC will release a text full “Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking” on net neutrality Thursday, which be voted on at the May 18 FCC open meeting. Should it pass, the public will then be able to file comments on the proposal.

A 2014 poll by the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication found that 81 percent of consumers supported net neutrality provisions. Pai said Wednesday he is in favor of net neutrality principles, but is expected to call on broadband companies to draw up their own protections in their terms of service, which would then be enforced by the FTC. That drew criticism from some Democrats.

“That’s like saying you value math, but you don’t value numbers. We can’t keep the promise of net neutrality without the rules,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said a Wednesday conference call ahead of Pai’s remarks.

The Senate Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, also blasted Pai’s plan.

“Gutting these rules robs Americans of protections that preserve their access to the open and free internet,” Nelson said in a statement.

“Depriving the FCC of its ongoing, forward-looking oversight of the broadband industry amounts to a dereliction of duty at a time when guaranteeing an open internet is more critical than ever.”

Consumer groups that backed the net neutrality rules are outraged, and many have been mobilizing since Pai’s expected changes were reported earlier in April. On the same conference call with Markey, leaders from the advocacy groups Free Press and Fight for the Future hammered Pai’s anticipated policy shift on the matter.

“By attacking net neutrality Ajit Pai is potentially opening the floodgates for widespread internet censorship by ISPs,” Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, said.

Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, mocked the idea that broadband companies would “pinky swear” to voluntarily follow net neutrality principles under Pai’s guidelines.

“Hell hath no fury like the internet scorned,” Greer continued, noting that past attempts to regulate the internet in favor of industry interests had led to widespread public backlash. He warned that Pai’s changes would likely be subject to the same treatment.

Democrats such as Sens. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Markey, who are opposed to Pai’s proposed net neutrality reforms, have said they intend to leverage this backlash in their efforts to keep the FCC and Republicans in Congress from gutting net neutrality rules.

“Chairman Pai should expect a tsunami of resistance from Americans defending net neutrality,” Markey said.

Updated 3:41 p.m.

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