WASHINGTON — President Obama liked the idea laid out in a memo from his staff: an ambitious plan to expand high-speed Internet access in schools that would allow students to use digital notebooks and teachers to customize lessons like never before. Better yet, the president would not need Congress to approve it.
White House advisers have described the little-known proposal, announced this summer under the name ConnectED, as one of the biggest potential achievements of Obama's second term.
There's just one little catch — the proposal costs billions of dollars, and Obama wants to pay for it by raising fees on mobile phone users. Doing that relies on approval by the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency that has the power to reject or approve the plan.
Republicans vow to oppose any idea that raises costs on consumers, while others question whether it's appropriate to use the FCC to fund an initiative that is better left to Congress' authority.
"Most consumers would balk at higher costs, higher phone bills, and I sure hope that this is not part of the equation that ultimately comes out," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "If they pursue that course, there's going to be pushback, absolutely."
Republicans said that if the proposal moves forward, they will hold congressional hearings and pressure the FCC to side against the proposal, though it's unclear how much they could really do. There are five seats on the commission — two are filled by Democrats, one by a Republican, and Obama has nominated candidates for two open seats. The commission has taken the initial steps in what could be a yearlong process before it decides.
ConnectED, which seeks to provide high-speed Internet to 99 percent of schools within five years, is a case study in how Obama is trying to accomplish a second-term legacy despite Republican opposition in Congress.
"It's got a lot of the characteristics of big-vision policy that you really don't get through legislation anymore," said Rob Nabors, White House deputy chief of staff, who is coordinating executive actions.