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Senate Confirms Tom Wheeler as FCC Chairman

The Senate confirmed Tom Wheeler as the next chairman of the FCC and Michael P. O’Rielly to fill another vacancy at the agency.

Wheeler’s confirmation came after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) removed a hold on his nomination after meeting with Wheeler on Tuesday afternoon. Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) chastised Cruz for holding up the nomination, and said that he would hold a cloture vote some time this week to overcome a filibuster.

But in the end, none such vote was needed, and Wheeler was confirmed Tuesday evening. His nomination was paired with that of O’Rielly, a Republican, to draw bipartisan support. Their confirmations came in a unanimous vote on executive items.

Wheeler will face a host of pressing issues at the FCC, first and foremost being a plan to set up auctions of broadcast spectrum to free up the airwaves for wireless use. The details of how the auctions will be structured are incredibly complex, and broadcasters have warned that the agency not to rush into the process while large wireless companies have pressed for few restrictions on who can participate.

Also pending before the commission is a revision of the agency’s media ownership rules, after a previous effort was put on hold under chairman Julius Genachowski to study the impact that any rule changes would have on minorities and women.

In a statement, Wheeler said that he would be taking the oath of office “in the coming days.”

“What excites me about this new responsibility is how we are at a hinge moment of history; the Internet is the greatest communications revolution in the last 150 years,” he said. “We must all dedicate ourselves to encouraging its growth, expanding what it enables, and assuring its users’ rights are respected.”

Wheeler also may be forced to grapple with what to do about the FCC’s net neutrality rules if a D.C. appellate court overturns them. Verizon challenged the commission’s rules, passed in 2010, and a decision is pending after oral arguments were held in September. Another issue will be whether to rewrite the commission’s approach ot complaints of indecency on broadcast TV.  Genachowski had proposed a plan to deal only with “egregious” cases, but family watchdog groups have been critical of such an approach.

Wheeler has most recently been a managing director at venture capital firm Core Capital Partners. He was president of the National Cable Television Assn. from 1979 to 1984, and led the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn. in the 1992 and until 2004. When President Obama nominated him to the post in May, he cited Wheeler’s experience working in telecom policy and business development.

Although there had been some criticism that, given his experience leading two major lobbying orgs with business before the FCC, how tough he would be on industry. But Gigi Sohn, president and CEO of the public interest group Public Knowledge said at the time that “as someone who has known Tom for years, I believe that he will be an independent, proactive Chairman who will not allow the FCC to become irrelevant as broadband becomes the dominant mode of communication in this country.”

O’Rielly, who has worked for Congress for 20 years, has been an adviser to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the Republican minority whip. He previously was a staffer for Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) and for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. During his confirmation hearing, he said that the agency has to have as “light a hand as possible” in imposing regulations on the business.

Cruz had put a hold on Wheeler’s nomination until the nominee answered his questions on whether the FCC would attempt to adopt elements of the DISCLOSE Act, a campaign finance reform proposal that stalled out in the Senate in the face of opposition from Republicans. Some Democrats have urged the FCC to require disclosure of the actual source of funding of political ad spots. Last year, the FCC passed a measure that requires that stations post records of political ad buys online.

Wheeler and O’Rielly fill two vacancies on the FCC after the departure of Genachowski and Robert McDowell last spring. Mignon Clyburn has served as acting FCC chairwoman in the interim.

“The FCC family enthusiastically welcomes both Tom and Michael,” Clyburn said in a statement. “I look forward to working with them, along with my current colleagues at the Commission, to further communications policies that advance the public interest, bolster competition, empower consumers, and spur new waves of innovation that grow our economy and create jobs.”

Gordon Smith, CEO of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said that the org “strongly supported” the nominations of Wheeler and O’Rielly. “Broadcasters look forward to working with a full complement of commissioners in the months and years ahead,” he said.

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