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Telecom Bill? Bet on It, Says Barton

A confident House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) told reporters Wednesday that he fully expected the president to have signed a telco reform bill by the end of this congressional session.

Calling himself "a pretty good poker player," he said "the odds are 2 to 1 that the president is going to sign a bill this year."

In a roundtable with a couple handfuls of reporters, Barton challenged them at least twice to bet against him, saying House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who publicly supports the bill, had cleared floor time for the vote sometime in May or June.

Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said that they were "very close" to getting both the cable and telco sides to sign off on the bill, which creates a national franchising system for both new entrants like telcos and incumbent cable systems.

The legislation has already been made more cable-friendly by the excising of two provisions in an earlier draft that would not have allowed cable to seek a national franchise until a competitor had penetrated 15% of the market, and would have forced cable to apply any price cuts it made to apply to its entire service area, not just where a competitor was offering service.

That excision meant that a once bipartisan bill lost the support of ranking Democrats Ed Markey and John Dingell, with Markey highly critical of the new bill without what he saw as those and other consumer-friendly provisions, like one setting benchmarks for building out systems.

Both Upton and Barton pointed to the support of Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush as the reason they were billing the legislation as bipartisan, though no other Democratic names are on it. Rush called it a good bill for minorities, consumers, and his constituents," saying: "I expect to have a lot of Democrats support this bill."

Rush said his constituents need competition to cable to lower prices and he wanted to "break the logjam."

Barton said that "anytime you don't have the ranking member on the full committee and subcommittee on board [Dingell and Markey, respectively], that is not a positive sign," but called Rush a "superstar" late addition to the team.

He also said they may yet get Markey and Dingell on board, and agreed with Rush's hopeful assessment that "we're going to get a lot of Democrats on board."

Broadcasters concerned about the possible inclusion of an amendment to the bill targeting retransmission consent should be less so, suggested Barton. When asked whether there was a "germaneness" problem with an amendment that Rep. Nathan Deal was said to be working on, Barton said there was, instead, "a vote-getting problem. It won't pass."

Barton said he would encourage Deal not to introduce the amendment.

A complementary telecom reform bill is working its way through the Senate Commerce Committee, with a markup planned for after the spring recess.

Barton and Senate Commerce Chairman Stevens have differences over at least one provision--whether to extend the industry-fed Universal Service Fund, which underwrites phone service to rural areas--to broadband service as well. But their differences are "conferenceable," Barton said, meaning that there wasn't anything that couldn't be worked out.