The battle — over the relatively obscure issue of “net neutrality,” which concerns whether and how the federal government should regulate the Internet — pits cable and phone industry giants against tech heavies such as Google, which is based in Pelosi’s home turf of the Bay Area, as well as an array of consumer groups.
That the debate has turned partisan is angering cable and phone-friendly Democrats, who accuse Pelosi of trying to impose her personal views on the party.
“She’s taking this bill personally. It’s a constituent issue for her, and she’s generalized it into a Caucus issue,” said a senior aide to a Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Jarvis Stewart, a former chief of staff to Rep. Harold Ford Jr.(D-Tenn.) who’s now lobbying for Verizon on the issue, called the minority leader’s involvement “heavy-handed.”
However, Pelosi aides and others who support her position argue that it was Republicans who fired the first partisan shot in the debate. They say that Pelosi is simply seeking to get her Caucus on the right side of history by sticking up for the public’s right to unfettered Internet access.
“She personally feels it’s a good place for Democrats to be,” said Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider, emphasizing that the Minority Leader is not going so far as to whip her Caucus on the issue.
The fight pairs two entrenched lobbying forces — the cable and telephone industries — against Web-based businesses, which are relative newcomers to the Washington, D.C., influence game, but who carry clout because of their role as engines of new economic growth.
Both sides have been dumping lobbying resources into the fight, plastering the Hill with consultants for briefings and one-on-one meetings, covering cable airwaves and Beltway publications (including Roll Call) with issue ads and roping in outside groups to help make their case.
For Democrats, the debate offers a chance to court an emerging industry with increasing clout on Capitol Hill. And insiders say that the potential for a backlash against the party, at least in the short term, is low, since most phone and cable companies have already maxed out their political contributions for the 2006 cycle.
What’s at issue is a provision in a broader overhaul of telecommunications laws that’s expected to hit the House floor in the next few weeks. Democrats are pressing to strengthen language in that bill to prevent phone and cable companies from discriminating against certain sources of online content delivered over their broadband networks. For instance, these Democrats don’t want to see Internet service providers giving special treatment, such as faster downloads or quicker access, to Web sites that have signed sweetheart deals with some content providers, or to limit access to sites that have not formed partnerships.