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Two Bells and all's not well

Billy Tauzin will need some help in the Senate if he wants to keep his broadband-deregulation bill alive.

At the moment, his counterpart across Capitol Hill, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, is opposed to Tauzin's plan to let regional Bell phone monopolies offer Internet backbone and other long-distance data services to their local markets without getting regulators' approval.

Unless Tauzin can somehow find enough senators to force the courtly South Carolinian to bring up the legislation, the bill will probably die in committee. It is also probably dead in the House as well: Last week, rivals made it clear there are deep GOP divisions over the best way to roll out high-speed Internet and other broadband services. The House Speaker has no incentive to allow a battle within his own party if there's no chance the legislation will make it to the president's desk.

Tauzin's bill, which also would weaken the federal requirement that Bells provide broadband competitors access to their high-speed digital subscriber lines, is the biggest item on the local phone monopolies' wish list. They say, without deregulation, they can't compete with the cable industry's high-speed service. Without deregulation of the Bells, they say, Congress will face the "ugly prospect" of imposing similar rules on cable operators.

The Bells' critics counter that the 1996 Telecommunication Act provided Bells all the deregulation they need if they would live up to their promise to open their local phone networks to competitors at reasonable prices.

The Judiciary Committee last week put a damper on Tauzin's plan by approving by voice vote a version that, like the Commerce Committee version, would eliminate RBOCs' need for FCC approval for entering long-distance data services but would instead transfer that duty to the Justice Department's antitrust staff. The Commerce Committee version, co-sponsored by John Dingell (D-Mich.), would let Bells into long-distance data with no regulatory gauntlet.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ohio) and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) are in the difficult position of choosing between competing bills, each of which has significant support among the GOP. The Rules Committee is expected to take up the legislation June 18 but may hold out until the Republican leaders can gauge whether a battle is worth waging.

Tauzin's aides say they are trying to work out a Senate compromise, possibly sponsored by Kansan Sam Brownback or Montanan Conrad Burns, both Republicans. In the last session of Congress, Brownback introduced his own version of broadband deregulation, but Burns never endorsed it and, according to a Capitol Hill source, has no plans to now.

In the meantime, both sides were predicting victory after the Judiciary Committee took the unusual step of amending Tauzin's bill to suit its anti-Bell stance, then encouraging the Rules Committee to vote against the whole package.

The fight has as much to do with turf battles between the committees as with public policy. Many Judiciary Committee members were angered that Hastert limited their right to amend the bill to matters involving the Justice Department's antitrust authority. Now Hastert must decide whether the Judiciary went too far by giving Justice new regulatory powers beyond its traditional antitrust role.

"The Judiciary Committee might as well have tacked on a white flag of surrender," said Ken Johnson, Tauzin's spokesman. "There's no chance this will pass the parliamentary process."

But the Bell companies' critics also saw victory and predicted that House leaders will not want to bring the bill to a full House vote given the sharp differences of opinion. "The debate would look pretty ugly on the floor," said Julian Epstein, the Judiciary Committee's Democratic counsel.