By Jessica Meyers
The House's Commerce technology subcommittee is prepping for a word war.
The same Internet governance language that flew through both chambers last year now has Democratic members balking as Republicans consider turning it into law.
Bolstered by federal agency concerns, Democrats are threatening not to back the bill as they head into a Thursday markup. A once bipartisan push for open Internet has turned into a party spat over net neutrality.
"If this is what the majority is going to insist upon, I have to oppose it," subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said Wednesday. "It's not structured well and I don't believe it's been vetted."
The concern stems from seemingly innocuous language promoting a global Internet "free from government control." Lawmakers passed a resolution with those words last year, a unanimous symbol against a United Nations treaty they viewed as the makings of Internet regulation.
Democrats insist those words will have significant ramifications if the resolution, now a Sense of Congress, becomes law. They fear it will upend the FCC's Open Internet order and subvert current governance.
Federal agencies such as the FCC and the Department of Justice, they say, have warned it could dampen efforts to protect consumers, crack down on ID theft and legitimately monitor online activities.
"The bill is about rehashing the debates of the past," Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) said in Wednesday's opening comments. "We all know that each time net neutrality comes up, it takes the oxygen out of our subcommittee. The bill is also about prejudicing the debates of the future, specifically concerning the transition to IP-based voice service."
Eshoo said she's frustrated that subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) did not address her concerns previously and now plans to offer amendments Thursday to address them.
"Any split between Republicans and Democrats will send the wrong signal to the international community and could undermine the efforts of our diplomats going forward," she said.
Republican members, in turn, accused their Democratic counterparts of a backflip.
"We've got to be on record saying it's wrong; we as a nation are against it," said Republican Study Committee chairman and subcommittee member Steve Scalise (R-La.). "We did it a year ago. We did it in a way, I thought, that made this institution look better. There is no reason to oppose this piece of legislation that puts more teeth in what already is a good effort."
The debate went much like a partisan ping-pong match, or a careful reading of talking points. Republicans may still have enough votes to pass the bill, but strong Democratic pushback could influence a White House response.
Former Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) ridiculed the opposing arguments.
"I don't think this in anyway restricts the FCC from doing its routine business in terms of domestic federal communications policy," he said. "It simply says we don't want the Chinese to intervene in the Internet, or the Indians, or the Russians or any other foreign country."
Lawmakers aren't the only ones eyeing word choice.
"The casting of national government protections for citizens relating to broadband access and IP telecom networks as "government control' of the Internet has effectively poisoned the well for the use of such language in domestic legislation," Computer & Communications Industry Association President Edward Black said in a letter to both committee and subcommittee leaders. "Fortunately, U.S. legislation is unnecessary for strong continued American support of the traditional multi-stakeholder model for global Internet governance and the rejection of intergovernmental Internet regulations."
Matt Wood, the Free Press Action Fund's policy director, said it's not clear how the bill differs from current U.S. law.
"Whatever the implications of the remainder of the discussion draft, the bill under consideration at [Thursday's] markup should clarify that it has no impact on domestic law," he wrote in a letter to the committee heads. "Specifically, the bill has no impact on the Federal Communications Commission's long-standing authority over telecommunications and telecommunications services -- nor over the vital, open communications infrastructure on which all Internet content, applications and services depend."
Wood told POLITICO lawmakers are "talking past each other."
On one point, both sides agree.
Walden said it was time for Congress to "walk the walk" as the "world is literally watching this subcommittee."
Ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) warned of similar international ripples.
"Instead of a bipartisan vote in the House and the Senate," he said, "we're looking at a partisan debate for all the world to see."