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This Too Shall Pass, Says Upton

House Telecommunications Subcommittee Rep. Fred Upton remains confident that Congress will pass a telecommunications rewrite bill this session, either before the August break for elections, or in a lame-duck session afterward.

Upton cited a Washington Post story handicapping the prospects for the bill as "pretty dim."
"Actually," he said, "I think the prospects are actually very good."

That confidence was matched by Senate Commerce Committee staffers, who said that if they can get a bill into conference committee, they can pass it.

The House Commerce Committee has already passed a telecommunications reform bill dealing primarily with video franchise reform. That bill had originally been scheduled for a House vote this week, but work on the ethics bill pushed it back at least a week.

A floor vote could be pushed back even further, however, if the bill is referred to the Judiciary Committee. That committee held hearings on network neutrality last week, and its chairman, James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has made a pitch for dual jurisdiction, which the parliamentarian is perusing. Upton said they had tried to be careful to avoid issues that could split the jurisdiction and slow the bill.

The Senate Commerce Committee Monday released its draft of a telecom reform bill, which includes video franchising reform, though more locally-centric than the House national video franchising version.

Upton said he believed there could be a Senate vote on its version of the bill by July 4 and passage by the end of the month. The Senate plans two hearings on its bill in late May, followed by a tentative June 8 markup. That would put it on a track to get floor time by Independence Day.

Upton spoke about the bill's prospects at a National Journal conference in Washington.

Upton was sporting a black eye from a run-in with a swinging door, eh said (and not from the "Net Neutrality" fight, he joked, which he actually won). He didn't foresee a fight with the Senate over the different bills, saying he thought they were pretty close on the issues they shared--video franchising, network neutrality--and that the differences could be worked out. Those similarities he labeled the "velcro hooks" that would get them to a conference on the bills.

One of the things we've said from the beginning is that we want a Senate bill. Anything that they do that get into conference. By having a bill that is on a somewhat similar track as ours in substance, with a real promise that they are going to mark it up as early as next month, I think that gives us the time" to get a bill done.

Upton predicted the bill will pass "overwhelmingly" on the floor of the House, in the 280-290-vote range, maybe more, which he says will add pressure to get the bill through conference and to the President's desk this year.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) has all but guaranteed reporters a bill would make it to that desk, essentially daring reporters to bet against him.

"I don't think their bill is all that far, conceptually, from the bill that we passed," Upton said. His caveat was that he had not been over the 135-page bill with a fine-tooth comb yet, but he did point out that the House version was even stronger than the Senate on "network neutrality," which is preventing networks from discriminating in the provision of Internet access. He said he expected the House's stronger language to win out.

The Senate version simply calls for an FCC study on network neutrality, while the House gets into the FCC's power to adjudicate complaints, though that power does not extend to rulemaking authority.

One key difference in the bills is that the Senate version expands the Universal Service Fund to include braodband. Telephone service providers pay into that fund to underwrite service to poorer and underserved areas. The Senate version would require those getting the fund also to provide broadband service.One of the key underlying motivators for telecom reform is to help promote the rollout of high-speed Internet access.

The House version does not expand universal service and Barton is not in favor of expanding it. "I'm not sure exactly where we will go if universal service sticks [on the Senate bill]," he said. "but that is a bridge we will take when we get to it."
Upton called the House version a bipartisan arbitration effort that came after entertaining "zillions" of visitors to his office on all sides of the issue calling for a level playing field, "but really wanting to tilt it their way."

In fact, Upton said the bill was uniquely the product of bipartisan meetings, even if the final product lacked the support, and the votes, of two key figures--ranking Democrats Ed Markey and John Dingell.

He also said he thought the White House was happy with the House bill. He said he had not talked with the administration, but had talked with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin about it.

He said that he expected an Office of Management and Budget statement of administration policy being issued next week will be "very supportive of what we have done."

The administration has made broadband rollout a national priority.