Jessica Rosenworcel, currently acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission, fielded the lion's share of questions during a Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
Rosenworcel, who has been tapped to take over the agency officially, has already spent several years on the commission. Historically she concentrates on issues such as the so-called homework gap and broadband accessibility, which have bipartisan appeal, and so avoided most of the controversy. Republicans instead trained their fire on Alvaro Bedoya, a longtime privacy lawyer whom President Joe Biden named to the Federal Trade Commission, as GOP policymakers grow increasingly personal criticizing the commission's progressive turn under FTC chair Lina Khan.
Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, said in his introductory remarks, for instance, that Bedoya's habit of expressing "strident views on public policy matters that should be resolved through consultation and collaboration" was a concern.
"I fear that this pattern calls into question his ability to work in a collaborative manner with the other FTC commissioners on critical issues," Wicker said.
At one point, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz went farther, calling Bedoya "a left-wing activist, a provocateur, a bomb-thrower and an extremist."
Bedoya pledged to work on behalf of all Americans at the commission, citing his bipartisan work as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, including talks with Cruz's office. The concerns of Wicker and his colleagues, who also dug into Bedoya's past tweets, however, came as some in the GOP are increasingly agitated about FTC chair Lina Khan's sprawling agenda to push back on corporate concentration and regulate Big Tech. Bedoya would likely support the moves as the FTC's third Democratic commissioner.
The FTC's current Democrats, for instance, have all but declared they want to issue rules governing data abuses, privacy and artificial intelligence. Asked about a possible rule-making related to data, Bedoya said he supported the FTC's use of its authority to regulate prevalent unfair or deceptive acts, and suggested a particular focus on sensitive data.
Federal lawmakers have mostly failed for decades to pass laws protecting data, but the FTC's efforts threaten to reignite the decades-long cycle of blowback from businesses and lawmakers, especially Republicans, who have previously viewed FTC rule-making as overreach.
Additionally, Congressional Democrats are also eyeing a dramatic increase in funding for the FTC and the creation of a bureau to take charge of privacy specifically as part of their massive social spending proposal.
Sen. Mike Lee, a leading Republican critic of Khan, asked Bedoya if there were limits on the FTC's regulatory powers, and suggested the agency should focus on enforcing the law against particular bad actors rather than issuing sectorwide rules. Bedoya responded that he would respect legal guardrails but that the agency should use the tools it has, prompting Lee to call the lack of clear yes-or-no answers "deeply concerning."
In some cases, the Republican criticism of Khan's agenda has also come from her colleagues. Commissioner Christine Wilson told a gathering of antitrust lawyers earlier this month, for instance, that Khan's philosophy, particularly her view of competition, "is likely to fail." Wilson also suggested that the commission's Democrats are preparing a "rule-making binge," flouting Congress and the courts, and taking actions that could threaten the whole FTC and do damage to the U.S. economy.
"I speak out because I am fighting for what I hold dear," Wilson said.
The hearing also was notable for who wasn't there: Gigi Sohn, a net-neutrality advocate who Biden nominated to the FCC at the same time he put up Rosenworcel for the position of chair. Despite the nominations coinciding, Sohn's confirmation hearing is still pending and there are signs she faces a fight to get approval.
During a prior stint as an agency staffer, Sohn was instrumental to designing the FCC's 2015 net-neutrality order, which banned internet service providers from blocking web content, slowing it down or demanding pay for prioritizing it. While some conservatives who are fed up with Big Tech have started flirting with more progressive views on antitrust, Republican lawmakers remain nearly united in decrying the net-neutrality order as one of the more egregious examples of Democratic policy overreach in recent times.
The Republican-majority FCC infamously overrode the measure during the Trump administration, and Sohn's nomination, alongside Biden's calls for net neutrality, suggest the fight is likely to begin again — a possibility that provided a few awkward moments for Rosenworcel.
Top Republican members of the Commerce Committee have also suggested they're opposed to Sohn joining the FCC. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is close to Trump and often signals GOP positions on issues and nominees, recently called Sohn "a complete political ideologue who has disdain for conservatives."
When asked if Sohn could get any support from the conference, a Republican congressional aide told Protocol: "We anticipate a rocky road."
Because of the partisan breakdown of the current Senate, if GOP distaste for Sohn makes it impossible for her to get any Republican support, she would need all the Democrats to give her confirmation a thumbs-up. Moderates in the caucus haven't been shy about bucking some of the White House's other picks, though.
In addition, even slow wrangling of votes could threaten Biden's agenda, including the rollout of billions in funding for broadband under the new infrastructure law, some of which the FCC will oversee.
Rosenworcel must leave by year's end if she's not confirmed, and successful confirmation votes can easily come weeks or more after even friendly hearings. Without Rosenworcel and Sohn, the FCC would have a Republican majority, despite serving under a Democratic administration.
Many congressional Democrats have been openly frustrated with the White House because of Biden's delays in making his nominations.
"My only frustration with Commissioner Rosenworcel's nomination is that it was not done in March," said Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján. "This is long overdue."