Debate began Thursday night on the House video-franchise-reform bill, with the lines clearly drawn.
In a big victory for the phone companies, a strong network neutrality amendment introduced by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) was defeated 269 to 152, with all but 11 Republicans voting against and 58 Democrats joining them.
Instead, a vast majority 353 to 58 opted for an amendment introduced by House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton's fellow Texan, Republican Lamar Smith, that simply said that nothing in the bill's granting of the FCC authority to adjudicate network neutrality complaints affects applicable antitrust laws.
Opponents of that amendment called it a "Trojan Horse" that appeared to address network neutrality but instead did nothing, since they argued antitrust law would apply anyway.
A stronger bill dealing with anti-trust issues, which would have actually changed antitrust law to specifically addresss network neutrality, was not allowed by the House Rules Committee to be voted on.
House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton said the bill was the bipartisan result of a "long, fruitful and fair" process, pointing out that it that passed out of the Telecommunications Subcommittee (27-4) and the full committee (42-12) overwhelmingly.
He said at its base it would streamline the cable-franchise process and increase voice, video and data service competition. Barton said that it would allow the FCC to punish violators of network neutrality principles, without giving them the power to adopt new regulations on the Internet. "We don't need anybody to be the first secretary of the Internet," he said.
Ranking Democrat John Dingell called it a bad bill that takes care of the vested interests of cable and telcos, while consumers can anticipate worse service, "probably" less competition and "almost certainly" rate increases.
Dingell, who had supported an earlier draft of the bill, said the bill's national franchise handles control of streets and roads (referring to rights of way issues in network build-outs) to the FCC, which he called "one of the sorriest federal agencies," with "not the staff, time, or willingness" for the task.
The debate began after a vote on the rules of that debate. Unlike the Senate, where non-germane amendments can be proposed on the floor, a House Rules Committee must decide which amendments to allow.
Chief among those was a net neutrality amendment offered by Ed Markey (D-Mass.), which the committee allowed to come to the floor. Not allowed was a net neutrality amendment from Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner.
Among the amendments not allowed was one on so-called redlining (discriminating in network build-outs according to the potential profitability of the customers).
At press time, the prospects for the Internet Neutrality amendment were not clear, though the base bill was expected to pass. One group had even circulated their press releases praising passage, though embargoed until that time.