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FCC chairman: 'You're asking me to interpret the Republicans in Congress?'

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Tom Wheeler doesn't have time for drama

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republicans have been nipping at Tom Wheeler's heels since he won the net neutrality fight, but he's not worried. Speaking to The Verge, Wheeler shrugged off the idea that he received "some kind of secret instructions" from President Obama. "[That idea] been around for more than a year and I'm sure it will be around a year from now because it's a quick and easy take," Wheeler said.

When we asked the FCC chairman why he thought Congress was coming after him, he laughed. "You're asking me to interpret the Republicans in Congress?," Wheeler told us. "I'm the least qualified person in America to do that."

It's a busy time for Wheeler and his colleagues

Wheeler may not be worried about Republican complaints, but he still has to respond to them. Lawmakers have noticed FCC chairman Tom Wheeler's crusade against America's internet and cable giants, which is one of the reasons he and his fellow commissioners were called to appear today before the Senate's committee on commerce. The testimony Wheeler submitted today is a portrait of his fearless ambition to conduct as much of his agency's work as possible before he, and President Obama, leave office next year.

The FCC chairman's bucket list includes maintaining reasonable rates for rural broadband access, expanding communications access to the poor and elderlyfixing the 911 system, protecting consumer privacy, enforcing the Open Internet Order, and blowing up the cable box. Even lawmakers friendly to the commission's majority noted how many fights the agency has taken on. "It's been over a year since all five commissioners appeared on this committee, and a lot has happened in the interim," Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) said.

Wheeler's premiere talking point right now is the upcoming incentive auction for wireless spectrum that will (hopefully) be a seminal effort used to build 5G networks. He's particularly proud of this auction because he believes it aligns with his mantra for competition. "We will unlock 5G spectrum faster than any nation on the planet," Wheeler said today. "We will then get out of the way, and let innovation and competition reign."

But Wheeler's critics say he's stepping all over ISPs and competition with "heavy handed" regulation, and it might be because he's winning. He won the fight for Title II regulation: a fight that former FCC chairman Michael Powell said would be "World War III." And he also just decided to take on the cable companies in the second major fight of his tenure, this time to unlock the set top box. Wheeler believes these actions are fundamental to maintaining competition in the broadband and cable markets, though even his Republican colleagues on this commission disagree. At one point in today's hearing, Wheeler sparred with Commissioner Ajit Pai, who was sitting next to him. When Pai said that the Open Internet Order led to ISPs reducing investment in networks, Wheeler countered by saying his colleague's claim was simply not factual.

The FCC's critics are anxious for its chairman to leave office

Nonetheless, Congress has mixed opinions on the FCC's busy agenda, and this week lawmakers have increased pressure on Wheeler. Just a few days ago, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released a fiery report alleging that Wheeler colluded with the White House and steered the FCC toward fulfilling President Obama's policy goals. The report says FCC leadership ignored requests from staff to consider extending public comment on the decision to treat broadband companies more like public utilities, and that the agency took a sharp turn toward Title II regulation as soon as President Obama called for it publicly.

Despite the pro-consumer record he's developed, Republicans appear just as anxious for him to leave office as they are to see President Obama go. Committee chairman John Thune (R-SD) opened questions today by asking if Wheeler plans to follow "tradition" and resign as soon as Obama is out. "It's probably not the wisest thing in the world to make some kind of ironclad commitment," Wheeler said. "But I understand the point you're making."

Wheeler probably isn't thinking about his resignation, because he's got plenty of work to do. When asked about the plague of robocalls in today's hearing, Wheeler gave a personal anecdote about spammers calling his home and suggesting he owed the IRS money. "That was news to me," Wheeler said.

Wheeler's response to the robocall shows just how comfortable he now feels in his seat. "You called the wrong number," Wheeler said. "Because I'm the chairman of the FCC."

Join us next week to read our full interview with FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.