Politics and “Net Neutrality” clash in election year

In this very hot summer, Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens, (R-Alaska,) has been scrambling to get enough Senators to support a floor vote next month for legislation that would make sweeping changes to U.S. telecommunications laws.

However, Stevens is finding opposition by Sen. Rick Santorum, (R-Pa.), and other senators facing close races in November, the National Journal reported. Santorum's office had no comment.

The lawmakers are concerned about casting sensitive votes on telecom matters, particularly a “Net Neutrality” amendment to preserve the Internet's openness-before Election Day. Their votes, they fear, might galvanize grassroots opposition.

Another worry, the National Journal report said, is that their votes might disrupt the flow of telecom and technology donations to their campaign coffers.

Stevens has been trying to find 60 supporters to limit floor debate. The senator has been pushing for action on the legislation in September but recently said consideration could slip to an anticipated post-election session in November.

Santorum, locked in what political observers consider the tightest Senate race this year, apparently is anxious about the impact of voting on network neutrality. The fear is that a vote against an amendment on the issue might make him susceptible to accusations that he helped destroy today's Internet.

Santorum's office did not clarify his stance on net neutrality, but sources speculated to the Journal that he opposes the concept, which would bar high-speed Internet operators from potentially blocking or degrading the content of competing Internet players.

Santorum also has raised considerable money from communications companies, even though he does not sit on panels regulating them. According to the nonpartisan PoliticalMoneyLine, BellSouth, Microsoft and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association are among the tech players that have helped contribute $180,500 to his campaign. Microsoft supports net neutrality, but the other two oppose it.

The Journal said rumors swirled in Washington last week that additional senators considered vulnerable in November would prefer action after the Nov. 7 mid-term elections. Sens. Lincoln Chafee, (R-R.I.); Mike DeWine, (R-Ohio); Ben Nelson, (D-Neb.), and Jim Talent, (R-Mo.), are the most frequently mentioned.

Delaying action until after Election Day may be risky for Stevens because if Republicans lose seats, sources told the Journal that Democrats would have an incentive to postpone action until 2007.