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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Todd Shields and Maria Curi

Biden choice to create majority-Democrat FCC fails to sway GOP

WASHINGTON — Republicans continued to criticize President Joe Biden’s nominee for the Federal Communications Commission at a hearing Wednesday that concluded with Democrats still supporting her.

Nominee Gigi Sohn pushed back as Republican senators used the Commerce Committee hearing to question whether her earlier involvement in FCC policy and criticism of Fox News were disqualifying.

Sohn, who would give the Democrats a majority on the commission if confirmed, said she’d been “subject to unrelenting, unfair and outright false criticism and scrutiny.”

Republican lawmakers focused on Sohn’s promise to recuse herself from some FCC policies that she had addressed 12 years ago as a consumer advocate. They also asked about her time on the board of the Locast nonprofit service that relayed TV broadcast signals online until stopped by a judge. The service ceased last year and agreed to pay a settlement.

After the hearing, Senator Maria Cantwell, the Democratic committee chair, said she would continue to push for Sohn’s confirmation. Critics were “trying to conflate something that isn’t there,” Cantwell said.

Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Sohn’s background working on issues including net neutrality, children’s media, and squelching robocalls left her “eminently qualified” for the job.

But Senator Roger Wicker, of Mississippi, the top Republican on the committee who asked for the second hearing, told reporters he wasn’t satisfied with Sohn’s responses related to settlement of the Locast suit.

“We need to know Ms. Sohn’s role in negotiating the settlement, and whether the nomination affected it in any way,” Wicker said.

Sohn said that the settlement was agreed before she knew she was to be nominated.

GOP lawmakers weren’t appeased.

“Gigi Sohn is not fit to serve at the FCC,” Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who took part in the hearing, said in a tweet. “She has deceived Senators about business conflicts, recused herself from certain FCC matters and called conservative outlets ‘state-sponsored propaganda.’”

The panel was set to vote on her last week but Democratic senator Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico fell ill. His absence deprived Sohn, a communications lawyer, of a needed vote on the closely divided committee and opened the way for Wednesday’s hearing.

The FCC has operated without a Democratic majority since Biden took office, preventing Democrats from pursuing policies such as restoring net neutrality rules for broadband providers that the GOP-controlled agency scrapped.

Sohn told senators her work in public policy over 30 years has left her “lined up on the same side, and other times in opposition, to every regulated industry. I’m an advocate for the public.”

Cantwell said she thinks Senator Kyrsten Sinema supports Sohn. The Arizona Democrat known for bucking some Democratic priorities hasn’t made her position public. Hers is a potentially crucial vote if Republicans remain united in opposition to Sohn.

Sohn has attracted opposition from the right, including pushback for her criticisms of Fox News, which she called “state-sponsored propaganda” in one tweet.

“Gigi Sohn’s problems are issues of ethics and recusal,” Grover Norquist, president of American for Tax Reform, said in an email. “She is unacceptable no matter how many Republicans and Democrats are at FCC.”

Joshua Stager, deputy director of broadband and competition policy at the Open Technology Institute, a group that works to spread access to digital technology, said “the notion that a background in consumer protection conflicts with serving in a consumer protection agency should not be taken seriously.”

Chip Pickering, a former Republican member of Congress and chief executive officer of the Incompas trade group that represents carriers competing with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., predicted before the hearing that Sohn would ultimately win confirmation.

“This is a delay strategy that ultimately will not prevent Gigi Sohn from being confirmed,” Pickering said.

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