Skip to content

Senate spectrum bill markup scrapped over partisan differences

Top panel Republican objects to billions of dollars in subsidies the bill's auctions would finance

Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are seen during a confirmation hearing for Michael Whitaker, nominee to be administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, on Oct. 4, 2023.
Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are seen during a confirmation hearing for Michael Whitaker, nominee to be administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, on Oct. 4, 2023.

The Senate Commerce Committee late Monday scrapped plans for a markup Tuesday morning of wireless spectrum auction legislation that had already been punted several times.

Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., attributed the markup’s cancellation to the panel’s ranking member, Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz has has own spectrum bill with Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., that is considered more industry-friendly and also refrains from spending auction proceeds on a variety of purposes as Cantwell’s bill would, such as restoring rural broadband subsidies that ran out last month.

“We had a chance to secure affordable broadband for millions of Americans, but Sen. Cruz said ‘no,'” Cantwell said in a statement. “He said ‘no’ to securing a lifeline for millions of Americans who rely on the Affordable Connectivity Program to speak to their doctors, do their homework, connect to their jobs, and stay in touch with loved ones — including more than one million Texas families.”

Cantwell added that Cruz was “stoking culture wars” rather than considering her spectrum auction bill, which Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., cosponsored. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., piled on with his own shot at Cruz, citing the Cantwell bill’s “much-needed and common-sense investments” that are being obstructed by the Texan’s desire to “serve wealthy and well-connected corporations at the cost of working Americans who are struggling to get by.”

In response, Cruz took aim at the Democrats’ bill for delivering subsidies to unsavory constituencies.

“In his shameless blame-game, Leader Schumer accidentally revealed what he and his party really think about taxpayers — that they are dupes who should be forced to give free internet to illegal aliens, millions to antisemitic universities, and billions to mega-corporations with no strings attached,” Cruz said in a statement. “Pathetic and offensive.”

Earlier in the evening Monday, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist posted a link to an affiliated group’s endorsement of the Cruz-Thune spectrum auction bill, with the following advice to GOP party leadership: “Senate Republicans should not tie President Trump’s hands by voting for Democrat policy bills this late in an election year.”

The Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auctions are often used as a revenue-raiser by Congress to pay for other spending or to help offset the losses from tax cuts.

In addition to renewing lapsed auction authority for five years, the Cantwell bill would use proceeds to fund several Biden administration priorities, including the broadband internet subsidy, a federal grant program for semiconductor manufacturers, National Science Foundation research programs and more.

A Republican majority with former President Donald Trump back in the White House in 2025 may have other ideas for how to use that revenue, including potentially helping to reduce the cost of extending the tax reductions from his last administration.

The language that was expected to be considered by the committee on Tuesday is contained in a substitute amendment reflecting an agreement with the Defense Department and other agencies concerned about giving away too much spectrum for commercial use. 

Gopal Ratnam contributed to this report.