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Senate Confirms Tom Wheeler as FCC Chairman

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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