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Mass online protests of legislation designed to combat online piracy prompted scores of lawmakers to renounce the bill Wednesday, leaving Congressional leaders in each chamber divided on how the bill would progress.
After hours of furious lobbying against the measure, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, “It’s pretty clear to many of us that there’s a lack of consensus at this point,” and he urged House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to “try to build consensus” before the bill moves to the House floor.
Over the course of the day, other House leaders tried to steer clear of taking a stand on the measure.
“Not yet,” House GOP Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) said when asked whether she had a position on the bill.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) kept walking without uttering a word when asked the same question.
Across the Dome, Senate Democratic leaders said they are still planning to hold a procedural vote next week on the measure, known in the House as the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and in the Senate as the Protect IP Act, or PIPA.
The vote was teed up by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) before the holiday recess and is set for Tuesday afternoon. Reid still plans to hold the vote, and the bill remains a priority for him, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said Wednesday.
Wednesday’s protests were preceded by a slight revision by the administration of its position. At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney appeared to walk back remarks made by advisers last weekend that were widely viewed as announcing President Barack Obama’s opposition to the bills.
The remarks showed a “keen focus on the need to do something serious about online piracy, especially by foreign websites. It’s a serious problem that requires serious legislative responses,” Carney said Tuesday.
While top Internet sites, including Google, Wikipedia and Reddit, used Wednesday to protest the legislation, lawmakers took to Twitter to announce their opposition.
In the Senate, four co-sponsors, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, announced Wednesday that they were no longer in favor of the bill in its current form.
“After listening to the concerns on both sides of the debate over the Protect IP Act, it is simply not ready for prime time and both sides must continue working together to find a better path forward,” the Utah Republican said.
Congressional aides said offices were inundated with calls about the bill. “It’s constant. And everyone tweets about you right when they get off the phone,” one House aide said.
Supporters of the measure are frustrated because the Senate bill has been around since May, when it was unanimously reported out of the Judiciary Committee.
Senate Democratic leaders hope the opposition can be channeled into an effort to improve it and not kill it, the Senate Democratic leadership aide said.
Behind the scenes in the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor is playing a pivotal role, mediating between two Republican committee chairmen, Smith and House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), even if the duo were left with contrasting messages from the Virginia Republican.
Cantor and McCarthy have taken an interest in Internet and technology issues as part of their Young Guns brand and made inroads with Silicon Valley executives, including taking a September trip to Facebook’s Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters.
Cantor has appealed for support in Hollywood in recent years, and McCarthy has closely monitored the entertainment industry from his days in the California Assembly.
But the legislation pits the film and entertainment sector against Internet giants such as Google and Facebook.
Last Friday, Cantor called Issa from France on the way home from a Congressional delegation trip to the Middle East to discuss the bill and a hearing that Issa was planning.
Issa had been blasting Smith and SOPA for weeks, including at a Judiciary Committee markup before Christmas. The Oversight panel’s hearing, initially scheduled for Wednesday, would have coincided with the online protests.
In a statement released over the weekend in which Issa announced he was postponing the hearing, the California Republican said Cantor “assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote.”
In an interview, Issa elaborated that Cantor said “he would offer the protection from it going to the floor so that we had a chance to more fully get vetted without necessarily the hearing that I had scheduled.”
However, Smith said Wednesday that the Majority Leader told him “that that’s inaccurate.”
“You notice that there were never any direct quotes about what Mr. Cantor said, and there was a reason for that. A consensus does not mean that everyone has got to agree. I fully expect to go forward at the appropriate time.”
Smith said GOP leaders are “supportive of our efforts.”
Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for Cantor, said the Majority Leader “has told both chairmen that there are major issues of concern that need to be addressed prior to moving forward.”
Issa also suggested Cantor hadn’t been opposed to his vigorous public opposition to Smith’s bill.
In discussing his conversation with Cantor, Issa said, “You understand that, and I serve on that committee, but when the chairman and ranking member are using all the assets for one direction, you have a problem in which there is no balance on Judiciary. There is no support from the loyal opposition. So that’s one of the reasons that I needed that assurance.”