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Confirmation vote on FCC nominee Gigi Sohn unlikely this year, senators say

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Confirmation vote on FCC nominee Gigi Sohn unlikely this year, senators say

Senate leadership is not expected to prioritize a confirmation vote for Federal Communications Commission nominee Gigi Sohn in this year's lame-duck session, several legislators told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Without a vote, the FCC will start another year with the prospect of partisan gridlock, dimming the likelihood of movement on hot-button regulatory issues like net neutrality. The commission is currently comprised of two Republican and two Democratic members, meaning it cannot move forward on any regulatory rulemakings that do not have bipartisan support. Sohn, if confirmed, would be able to offer a tie-breaking vote.

"Bills will likely get the priority" in the Senate's December calendar, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee and has voiced support for Sohn, said she would continue looking for an opportunity for a confirmation vote.

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Multiple Senate Democrats say a confirmation vote for Gigi Sohn, pictured above, is unlikely this year.
Source: Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Hurdles ahead

Sohn's confirmation faces two major hurdles, the first being time. Lame-duck sessions typically run from mid-November up to the December holidays, giving the Senate two to three weeks to address business before the year's legislative calendar expires.

Second, a handful of Democratic senators remain ambivalent about Sohn's nomination, citing concerns over her social media posts. During Sohn's time as a public interest advocate, she published tweets calling FOX News Channel (US) "state-sponsored propaganda."

Though Sohn has never publicly supported news censorship, any negative talk about Fox News from a person set to hold a top regulatory seat is enough to create controversy, said Berin Szóka, president at TechFreedom, a D.C. think tank promoting less restrictive guardrails on technology companies.

"Her comments about Fox News ... made Senate Democrats afraid of being accused of supporting censorship of Fox," Szóka said.

The delay in Sohn's confirmation process has frustrated public interest advocates who believe a vote should have occurred months ago. President Joe Biden tapped Sohn as his FCC nominee in October 2021.

"A whole lot of support has been coming in for her," said Ernesto Falcon, policy counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "I think the stakes are very high for the [telecom] industry on this one."

Hesitant Democrats

At least three Democratic senators are believed to be uncertain about Sohn, including Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz.

Manchin's office told Market Intelligence that the senator has not announced his position on Sohn and does not have an update.

Cortez Masto declined to give an exact position on Sohn but said she has "concerns about previous comments about defunding the police." The Fraternal Order of Police has objected to Sohn's nomination, saying her past retweets showed "serious animus" toward law enforcement.

"I don't know anything about other senators, but I don't think she's gonna be brought up," said Cortez Masto. "I don't think [her vote] is coming forward."

Kelly's office did not respond to a request for comment.

A former FCC official familiar with Sohn's nomination proceedings said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the White House before the Thanksgiving holiday that he did not have the votes necessary to confirm Sohn. Schumer's office did not respond to a request for comment. The White House also did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked about the handful of Democratic senators hesitant to support Sohn's nomination, Cantwell pointed back to limited floor time being the biggest obstacle to a vote in the lame-duck session. "Whatever you put on the floor right now ... would eat up a whole week," Cantwell said.

Sohn's nomination, which received a party-line vote by the Commerce Committee, would face an additional procedural hurdle to discharge it from the committee, requiring multiple votes and more time in the Senate calendar. Meanwhile, the Senate has several major legislative packages to consider in the next few weeks, on topics including the U.S. government's budget, the debt ceiling and defense spending.

Even if Sohn was viewed favorably among all Democratic lawmakers, the Senate's 50-50 party-line split would require all Democrats to be present to bypass GOP opposition. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., is away until at least Dec. 6 campaigning in Georgia's runoff election.

Potential alternates

The former FCC official told Market Intelligence that some nominees viewed to be less politically polarizing were being considered as replacements in the event Sohn is not confirmed. The official, citing conversations with a lobbyist close to the White House, said retired telecom attorney Anna Gomez and Susie Perez Quinn, chief of staff for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, are on the docket as possible replacements.

Stacey Abrams, a Georgia Democrat who last month lost her second campaign to be the state's governor, is also being considered for the FCC, the former official said.

Gomez was deputy assistant secretary for communications and information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration under former President Barack Obama. Quinn served as director of government relations at the National Governors Association. Before that, Quinn spent 17 years in the Senate managing policy, communications and political affairs.

Gomez told Market Intelligence that she was unaware she was being considered as a replacement nominee. NASA did not respond to a request for comment on Quinn's interest in the role. Abrams' office also did not return a comment.

Nominating and confirming a new person would take time, though, leading to more delays at the FCC on policy issues like crafting digital redlining rules and restoring net neutrality, a goal of the Biden administration, EFF's Falcon said.

Falcon and other public interest advocates such as Greg Guice, government affairs director at internet consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, have not given up hope that a confirmation vote on Sohn is forthcoming. Sohn co-founded Public Knowledge in 2001 and served as its CEO until 2013.

"There are many important issues the Senate needs to address in the lame-duck session, but deadlines are starting to matter and this is one of the issues that the Senate will want to get off of the table soon to start the new year with commissioners in place," Guice said.