Though it said it "vigorously supports" the principle of a "robust, free and open Internet," the White House pointed out this week that the FCC is an independent agency.
The big telecom companies and many Republicans strongly oppose reclassifying the industry, calling such a move an unnecessary power grab by regulators for control of Internet service providers that could stifle the Internet's growth.
"No matter how many times the court says 'no,' the Obama administration refuses to abandon its furious pursuit of these harmful policies to put government in charge of the Web," said Fred Upton of Michigan and Greg Walden of Oregon, two top House Republicans on communications policy.
Telephone and cable companies that provide most of the nation's broadband connections are among the most influential in the nation's capital. Comcast, Verizon, AT&T Inc. and the trade group National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. spent a total of $68.2 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In addition, AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, NCTA and Time Warner Cable employees and corporate political action committees have contributed about $4.2 million to congressional candidates in the 2013-14 election cycle so far.
"We continue to believe that the values of an open Internet can be preserved, while avoiding a damaging move to heavier regulation," said Michael Powell, NCTA's president and a former FCC chairman.
But Wheeler said he will keep open the option of reclassifying broadband as a telecom service "to utilize, if warranted."
Wheeler is attempting "a very tricky proposition" in trying to rewrite the rules without reclassifying broadband as a telecom service, said Jeffrey S. Silva, a telecom analyst at Medley Global Advisors.
But taking that step risks strong political backlash against the agency, such as House Republicans' attempting to cut its budget, that could prevent Wheeler from accomplishing other priorities, Silva said.
In last month's decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the FCC did not have the authority to enforce net neutrality rules because it did not classify broadband Internet service as a telecom service.
But the court appeared to give the FCC authority to impose new rules under a 1996 law that allows the agency to enact measures encouraging the deployment of broadband infrastructure.
Wheeler, who hopes he'll win court approval of new rules by following that path, will be the third FCC chairman to try to establish a solid basis to keep the Internet free from restrictions imposed by network owners. But he isn't winning support so far from fellow Republicans on the five-member commission.
"Today's announcement reminds me of the movie, 'Groundhog Day,'" said FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, one of two Republicans on the panel. "Net neutrality has always been a solution in search of a problem."
Puzzanghera reported from Washington, Chmielewski from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Chris O'Brien contributed to this report.