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Former Cable Chief Tom Wheeler Awaits FCC Confirmation

The cable industry received a boost earlier this month when President Barack Obama nominated Tom Wheeler, a former head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, cable’s top lobbying group, to chair the Federal Communications Commission.

Wheeler, a former venture capitalist and Obama campaign bundler, is well-known in telecom policy circles and perceived as friendly to industry, which should smooth his road to confirmation. But Senate Republicans might keep the nominee waiting for reasons unrelated to his qualifications.

Administration officials had hoped for Wheeler’s confirmation hearing to take place by the end of June, but that timeline has been complicated by the Senate GOP’s delay in naming a successor for recently departed Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. McDowell and former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stepped down May 17, leaving senior Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn as the acting chairwoman.

Wheeler’s nomination is not expected to draw significant resistance on the issues from the GOP, but many believe he will only be confirmed alongside a Republican nominee. Because any candidate selected by Senate Republican leaders would have to be vetted, that could take several weeks. There is also always the possibility a senator may place a hold on Wheeler for tangential reasons, such as the hold last year by Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley on FCC nominees Ajit Pai and Jessica Rosenworcel.

Wheeler’s odds of confirmation are also helped by the fact that the most vocal dissenters are in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which is suspicious about his extensive industry tries but unlikely to seriously challenge Obama’s selection. However, Wheeler can probably expect some stiff questioning from progressives about issues such as wireless competition and net neutrality at his confirmation hearing.

The delay will extend Clyburn’s tenure as the first woman to lead the FCC, and the third African-American to hold the top post after William Kennard and Michael Powell. Clyburn has been a strong advocate on issues affecting minorities and underserved communities, so it is possible that under her leadership, the commission will take up petitions on issues that have been pending for many years such as multilingual emergency broadcasting and prison phone rates.

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