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Dingell: Hold AT&T-BellSouth for New Congress

Incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) said Wednesday that the Federal Communications Commission should postpone a vote on AT&T’s $81 billion merger with BellSouth until Democrats have taken power in the House in January.

“I think it would be in their interest, I think it would be in the interest of the committee and I think it would be in the broad public interest,” Dingell said in an afternoon conference call with reporters.

Dingell was chairman when Democrats lost power in 1994. Despite a history of tension with incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Dingell is expected to reclaim the gavel. During the call, he didn’t indicate to reporters that he might have to fend off a Pelosi-sponsored rival or two.

Dingell -- who hopes the committee will pass a telecommunications bill in the new Congress -- said the AT&T-BellSouth merger deserved a close look.

“We’ll have to look to see whether the Department of Justice is doing its responsibility, and we’ll also have to take a hard look to see whether or not the FCC is seeing to it that the public interest is being served,” he added.

FCC spokesman David Fiske declined to comment.

AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said, “18 state commissions and the U.S. Department of Justice have carefully and fully examined our merger and found that it is in the public interest.”

He continued, “Additionally, we have put forth a set of unprecedented conditions unrivaled by any other communications provider in a merger proceeding, and they have been fully examined in an open, public debate, and have received glowing approval from a broad range of individuals and groups. We look forward to expeditious approval so that we can begin delivering the benefits of our merger to consumers, to the economy and to the public interest.”

Following the call, Dingell pulled back some, indicating in an interview with financial-news channel CNBC that he didn’t want the merger review to drag on.

“Well, first of all, I've not said that it should be delayed. I've said that it should be ... looked at and looked into carefully by the agencies responsible for that,” he said, according to a rush transcript provided by AT&T.

The Justice Department last month approved the large telecommunications deal without conditions, angering FCC Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who believe a host of conditions are warranted.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, has pulled the merger from the public meeting agenda three times since Oct. 12 due to opposition by Copps and Adelstein.

Five FCC members normally vote, but because Republican FCC member Robert McDowell isn’t voting due to a conflict of interest, Martin needs help from at least one Democrat to complete the agency’s review.

Meanwhile, AT&T has put forward numerous commitments that the company insisted should be sufficient to allay concerns about the competitive impact of a company with a dominant local phone presence in 22 states.

Dingell said he sent the FCC a letter a while ago regarding his competitive concerns about the AT&T-BellSouth combination.

“I’m sure that we will be reinforcing that letter so as to help the commission avoid surprise and ill will in their dealings with the committee,” he added.