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Rollback Backburnered

Wait 'til next year" is the message Congress is sending foes of media consolidation. Time is running out on the current session, and lawmakers are eager to go home. That means the coffin lid is closed, and the first few nails have been hammered into congressional efforts to roll back the FCC's broadcast-ownership deregulation.

"There's about a 30% chance ownership legislation will come to a vote this year," said one Capitol Hill aide whose boss is in the anti-deregulation camp.

"The odds are overwhelming," conceded Center for Digital Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester.

By blocking votes on the anti-FCC bills, congressional leaders are taking heat off President Bush, who last week endorsed the commission's deregulation but wouldn't commit to vetoing a rollback. Bush wants to support the FCC, but a veto of anti-FCC measures would hand Democrats a populist issue to hammer him with throughout next year's presidential campaign. Bush still faces a narrower version of the media-consolidation fight because of the FCC's approval of the Univision/Hispanic Broadcasting merger last week and its impact on Latino voters (see related story, page 20).

Of course, the battle over media consolidation at large isn't going away. Congress will probably resume the fight in next year's session, and a pending court battle will draw attention as well. Last week, three of the big broadcast nets appealed again to change the venue of that court fight from Philadelphia to Washington.

The most prominent measure, which would roll back the 35% cap on national TV-household reach from the new—though currently stayed—45% level, is tied up in a dispute between Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who wants to bury anti-FCC measures, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who heads the Appropriations Committee. Stevens fought to include the ownership-cap measure in a spending bill that would fund the FCC and the Commerce, Justice and State Departments.

Frist, sources say, wants to bundle the FCC-funding measure into an omnibus package with other agency-spending bills and send it to President Bush quickly—a maneuver that would require agreement among Senate and House leaders. For that move to work, controversial measures such as the FCC rollback probably must be stripped out because House leaders strongly oppose the anti-FCC measures.

Further ensuring that deadline pressures will dampen other lawmakers' enthusiasm for a fight over FCC rewrites, Frist has scheduled the FCC-spending bill last among the remaining handful of spending measures that must be enacted.

Stevens is resisting Frist's machinations and is pushing for a vote on spending bills individually, including any controversial measure they contain. "Sen. Stevens would be unhappy with an omnibus package, and, until the leadership determines otherwise, we are proceeding as if spending bills will be considered one by one," said the lawmaker's spokesman.

It's premature to declare Stevens's defeat, according to one FCC foe. "He has paved a good part of Alaska and other parts of the country because he has been very successful at this kind of thing," said Andrew Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project.

But Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has complicated matters for Stevens by placing a "hold" on the FCC-funding legislation. Unique Senate rules allow individual lawmakers to stall votes indefinitely unless there are 60 votes to bring the measure to the floor.

McCain opposes the 35% rollback largely because he resents the Appropriations Committee's tackling a subject normally reserved for the Commerce Committee. "The far-reaching policy changes and statutory directives in the bill are perhaps the most extensive that I have seen" in a bill supposedly reserved only for dictating spending levels, McCain complained in a letter to Stevens released by McCain's office last week.

In addition, he has endorsed a competing bill that would cover more than just the national TV-ownership cap, also reinstating previous restrictions on local TV duopolies and broadcast/newspaper crossownership.

In the meantime, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is stonewalling a House vote on a version of the "legislative veto" passed by the Senate two weeks ago. Unless 218 House members sign a petition demanding a vote, that measure will die as well.