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March 27, 2013

After a busy week of announced exits at the Federal Communications Commission, the slow wheels of change are beginning to turn - both at the agency and on Capitol Hill.

The pending departures of Democratic Chairman Julius Genachowski and Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell are catalyzing a natural evolution. The FCC's next most senior Democrat is among those angling for the driver's seat, even as the White House eyes other candidates, and conversations are just beginning on Capitol Hill about whom the next Republican commissioner should be. But it's just the beginning of a potentially lengthy process, one in which the FCC's congressional overseers could clash with the Obama administration over the telecom agency's work and its future direction. If anything, the past few months of Senate squabbling at multiple hearings featuring the commissioners may only serve as a preview of what's to come.

It's almost impossible for Genachowski's replacement to be confirmed in the few weeks before the sitting chairman officially departs. That only raises the likelihood that one of its sitting Democratic commissioners could take the helm in an interim capacity - a role that could fall to Mignon Clyburn, the next-most senior member. The Obama administration hasn't commented on the speculation that Clyburn could become acting chair - the first female, in fact, to lead the agency in its history. When asked by reporters about the job, Clyburn only said that she'll do as asked by the president. Still, the Democratic commissioner has sought to raise her profile considerably in recent weeks, a campaign that began even before Genachowski announced his intentions.

For example, Clyburn previously pushed the commission to issue a notice of proposed rule-making on the long-languishing "Martha Wright" petition, which seeks to lower the high phone rates prisoners are charged to talk to their relatives. She also forced a pause in the FCC's controversial media ownership work. And on Friday, Clyburn criticized Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and others for introducing amendments "improving or eliminating" the Lifeline program. In a surprising statement, the commissioner said the FCC is open to changes, "but in no uncertain terms should qualifying low-income consumers who have followed the rules be refused service."

Meanwhile, Republicans are eyeing the next steps, too. McDowell worked Capitol Hill in meetings with top Senate GOP lawmakers on Friday, the day of the Genachowski announcement. The commissioner told POLITICO not far from the chamber doors that he made the house call to talk "about the next steps at the FCC [and] who might fill" the open Republican seat. He didn't offer any names - but, in due time, Republicans are expected to do precisely that. By custom, the minority party in the Senate has an opportunity to recommend a nominee to the White House - a suggestion President Barack Obama heeded last year when he selected now-Commissioner Ajit Pai to the satisfaction of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. The GOP leader did not comment for this story.

A Republican-backed FCC candidate should greatly ease the confirmation process on Genachowski's replacement - a fact evident when the Senate confirmed the chairman for the first time in 2009 along with a second term for McDowell, both on voice votes. It's widely thought that Tom Wheeler is the front-runner for Genachowski's soon-to-be old job. Whoever is nominated, however, still will face the same due skepticism on Capitol Hill, which frequently tangled with Genachowski during his four-year tenure. The fight over Lifeline could return, as it nearly did during the symbolic budget debate, along with more high-octane issues over net neutrality, media ownership, telecom mergers and more. Rural communications issues matter just as greatly to the members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which just slated a hearing on the issue for April.

Central to the coming confirmation fight will be the panel's new top Republican, Sen. John Thune, who met with McDowell on Friday. Thune told POLITICO that at least some of their conversation focused on the future of the agency itself. "We talked a little about reauthorizing the agency, and it's been a long time since that happened," the South Dakota senator said. Thune emphasized there's still strong Republican interest in re-evaluating "some of the processes by which they come to their conclusions." But Thune acknowledged it would depend on Democrats, who didn't leap to reform the agency in the last session of Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), meanwhile, echoed to POLITICO his belief the FCC hasn't yet adapted to market forces. "You have a 20th-century government structure that's trying to govern a 21st-century industry," before adding that it's "important to re-examine" the FCC's mandate. Politico


Mark Zuckerberg is adding a new title to his roster: political organizer.

The 28-year-old Facebook Inc. chief executive is in the process of co-organizing a political advocacy group made up of top technology leaders that would push federal legislative reform on issues ranging from immigration to education, said people familiar with the development. Mr. Zuckerberg is working on launching the group along with close friend Joe Green, who was one of the CEO's Harvard University roommates, these people said. The group is expected to be formally announced in the next few weeks, they added.

The group, which so far doesn't have a name, is aiming to raise roughly $50 million and has already secured commitments in the tens of millions of dollars from Mr. Zuckerberg and more than a dozen other tech executives including LinkedIn Corp. founder Reid Hoffman, said these people. The group plans to register as a 501(c)(4), a distinction reserved for social welfare groups that are not organized for profit, said a person familiar with the discussions. Mr. Zuckerberg has told confidantes that the new group will initially be focused on comprehensive immigration reform and making the pathway to U.S. citizenship less complicated for all immigrants, said people familiar with the CEO's thinking. The group also plans to focus on issues including education reform and funding for scientific research.

The new group has also enlisted several consultants well versed in Beltway politics. Rob Jesmer, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is especially active on a day-to-day basis, said one person with knowledge of the matter. Joe Lockhart, Facebook's former vice president of global communications and a former press secretary under president Bill Clinton's administration, and Jon Lerner, a Republican strategist are also involved, another person familiar with the matter said. The San Francisco Chronicle and Politico earlier reported on the potential formation of the group.

Mr. Zuckerberg's involvement is another step into the political arena for the billionaire CEO. In February, Mr. Zuckerberg hosted a fundraiser at his home in Palo Alto, Calif., for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican. Mr. Zuckerberg has also met President Barack Obama several times, including hosting a town hall for the Democratic president at Facebook's headquarters in 2011. The CEO contributed $10,000 to Facebook's political action committee in the last election cycle and previously made a $100 million donation to Newark, N.J., public schools. Some Facebook co-founders and executives have also expressed an interest in politics.

The social network's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, a former chief of staff of the Treasury Department, has hosted events in Silicon Valley for President Obama and former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who is now publisher of The New Republic, previously assisted in President Obama's election efforts and has emerged as a high-profile backer of gay rights. Many Silicon Valley executives including Mr. Zuckerberg and Google Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt have become more active in local and federal politics of late. Immigration has been a particularly popular issue among the digerati, with tech executives lobbying lawmakers to ease restrictions on visas to entrepreneurs and professionals. Many have endorsed the Startup Act 2.0 bill, which proposes creating a new visa for foreign-born entrepreneurs who manage to raise $100,000 and hire American workers. Wall Street Journal

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