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'A unique situation': U.S. House Democrats eye long shot rule to save low-income internet program

Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro Addresses annual LVEDC meeting
Donna Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-Lehigh Valley, plans to back an unusual rule that could allow Congress to vote on extending a program that helps low-income families pay for high-speed Internet.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — In a bid to save a popular program that helps low-income families access high-speed internet, U.S. Rep. Susan Wild said she is backing a rarely successful parliamentary procedure in a bid to cut through the chronic gridlock plaguing Congress.

More than 22.2 million American households are enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program, which helps low-income families pay for high-speed internet. Congress set aside $7 billion for the program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, but the funding is expected to dry up in the next few weeks.

Wild, D-Lehigh Valley, and fellow Pennsylvania Democratic U.S. Reps. Dwight Evans and Mary Gay Scanlon said in a remote news conference Wednesday that the program has proven to be a success. Qualifying households have received up to $75 a month to help them apply for jobs, work remotely, attend telehealth appointments and complete school work.

In Wild's district, which includes all of Carbon, Lehigh and Northampton counties plus a sliver of Monroe County, 42,518 households have enrolled in the program and received $23.6 million of support, according to the FCC website.

"We are living in a digital age. Having internet access is no longer a luxury. You need it as much as electricity and plumbing," Wild said.

President Joe Biden called on Congress in the fall to extend the program, but the bill has not advanced beyond committee despite bipartisan support. The congressional website lists 204 Democratic and 22 Republicans as co-sponsors of the bill, including U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks County.

The proposal would fund the program through the 2024 fiscal year with an additional $7 billion, according to the legislation.

Scanlon and Wild blamed the bill's lack of progress on the dysfunction among House Republicans, who hold a slim majority. The House has struggled to pass basic legislation such as keeping the government open or even rallying around a leader.

It took days for Republicans to select then-U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, as speaker in January 2023 only to jettison him from the top spot in October; it was the first time in American history the House removed its speaker.

Now, some Republicans are publicly discussing removing his successor, Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, from leadership after he negotiated a spending bill with Democrats.

"We are living in a digital age. Having Internet access is no longer a luxury. You need it as much as electricity and plumbing."
U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-Lehigh Valley

In a last-ditch move to extend the Affordable Connectivity Program before its funding runs dry, Democrats have proposed using a discharge petition. The petition would need 218 House members to sign it to force a procedural vote. That would mean almost every sponsor would have to sign the petition and vote to have a vote on the legislation.

"In this Congress, it seems to be something we're going to be relying on more and more often," Wild said of the petition. "We've got to make the case for why this is so incredibly important."

If the long shot effort works, Scanlon said, it's likely Democrats would try to move other popular bipartisan proposals that have gotten bogged down in the gridlock, she said.

"Success of discharge petitions are few and far between," Scanlon acknowledged. "We are in a unique situation."

Even if the bill passes through the House, it would still need to go up for a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate and be signed into law by Biden before the end of the month to have a chance of not disrupting the program. A sister bill in the Senate with bipartisan support has similarly languished since being introduced in January.