WASHINGTON--Tempers flared as a key House committee on Thursday pored over tech-related portions of a massive and expensive so-called stimulus package, with Democrats downplaying the lack of any hearings and Republicans calling the rush to a vote the same day an "abomination."
Members of the House of Representatives committee, which is charged with finalizing the portions of the $825 billion legislation that deal with broadband, clean energy, and health care, were deeply divided along partisan lines over the procedures that should be followed. This is one of President Obama's first priorities: his spokesman said on Thursday that "we have to do everything in our power, and Congress does, too, to get that package moving."
The Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee said they weren't necessarily opposed to the proposals--instead, they said more time was necessary to review the bill and objected to the idea of approving the largest single spending package in American history with zero hearings. Another sticking point: how much authority the Federal Communications Commission would have over broadband and Net neutrality regulations.
"I respect the right of the new president to have his agenda put before the American people, but I think it is abominable that a bill that is 269 pages is going to be the object of a one-day markup and no hearing," said Joe Barton, the ranking Republican from Texas. "It is truly an insult that we couldn't have several weeks to review this."
Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) added that by not holding hearings, "We have taken away Americans' right to petition their government."
The committee approved the clean energy and broadband portions of the bill, and as of 8 p.m. ET, the rancorous session had moved on to health care and showed no signs of ending anytime soon. A vote on the remainder is expected late Thursday or Friday, with a House floor vote next week.
Democrats, led by Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said that without action, the economic recession would only accelerate.
"We urgently need an economic recovery package, and we need it immediately," Waxman said.
The tempestuous hearing shows that any honeymoon for the Obama administration may be unusually brief. It was only 48 hours earlier that the incoming president announced "an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."
(To be sure, when they were in the minority instead of majority, the Democrats also complained about the same procedural gambits. The former Democratic ranking member of the same committee, John Dingell, accused (PDF) the Republicans of rushing to a vote on an energy bill "with no hearings" and "no process." Other Democrats charged in 2005 that the Republican leadership wanted to "steamroll" legislation through Congress "with no hearings.")
The debate: "Underserved" vs. "Unserved"
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocates $6 billion in funding for broadband deployment, with $2.825 billion in grants to be administered by the National Telecommunications Information Administration for "unserved" and "underserved" areas of the country.
Republicans were concerned however, with how "unserved" and "underserved" would be defined, how the funds would be allocated to unserved vs. underserved areas, and whether broadband funding even served the purpose of stimulating the economy.
The broadband portion of the stimulus package "will take years to implement," contended Joseph Pitts (R-Penn.). "The American people deserve better. It's not an economic stimulus, it's primarily a massive spending bill."
The legislation would leave it up to the Federal Communications Commission to define "unserved" and "underserved."
"It's a real tragedy, transferring our ability to make those policy decisions outside of this committee," said Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.). "I don't know how we make any decisions here today when we have no definitions of unserved and underserved."
To mitigate the power handed to the FCC, the committee agreed to an amendment requiring the commission to base its definitions of "underserved" and "unserved" on the information collected under the Broadband Data Collection Act.
"Hopefully we can bring some specificity to what is unserved and underserved," said Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who introduced the amendment.
After a map of broadband access in the United States is completed, the FCC will have 90 days to define the terms and 45 more days to institute rules and regulations based on the definitions.
Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) told her colleagues there was no need to get "hung up" on the terms, provoking Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) to pound his desk.
"Definitions are important!" he said, voice raised.
Eshoo also praised the mandate for Net neutrality included in the legislation. The bill stipulates that grant recipients must operate broadband and high-speed wireless networks on an "open access basis." The FCC is charged with defining "open access" within 45 days of the bill's passage into law.
Republicans, however, said the open access requirement could impede the main purpose of the bill--job creation.
Furthermore, the bill "will require the FCC to rush to judgment on some of the most complicated issues facing the communications industry today," Stearns said.
The committee added an amendment to the bill to make broadband grant funding specifically available for interoperable networks for emergency responders. Other amendments made minor adjustments to the eligibility requirements for the funds, while others required additional reports from the FCC and the NTIA on broadband deployment and the impact of the grants.
CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.