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Will Billy Stay or Go?

With the Democratic leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee in flux due to the pending retirement of Sen. Fritz Hollings (see page 30), many in Washington are wondering whether there will be a similar shuffling of the chairs on the other side of Capitol Hill among House Commerce Committee Republicans.

Rumors persist—despite repeated denials from the man himself—that House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin will exit Congress for a lucrative lobbyist post, perhaps succeeding Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

If Tauzin exits, his departure would probably ignite a turf battle over the Commerce Committee's helm between senior Republicans. Next in seniority on the panel is Rep. Michael Bilirakis of Florida, but Financial Services Committee Chairman Michael Oxley of Ohio once battled Tauzin to lead Commerce and might want to jump back to the panel if leadership becomes an option.

Another option for Tauzin could be the $1 million-per-year job running the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, which will be vacant at the end of this year. And Tauzin had been said to be in the running to head the Recording Industry Association of American until that group picked Republican lobbyist Mitch Bainwol two weeks ago.

Tauzin's staff is so sick of the questions about his future they initially refused even to address the issue last week. "We're not going there. We don't want to get that whole thing started again," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson. But Johnson answered anyway. "I've been with Billy 10 years," said. "Trust me, if Billy had one foot out the door I'd have both feet out the door."

Johnson said he was phoning in his comments from home because he had taken the day off to help prepare a half-page campaign ad that will run in 21 Louisiana papers at the end of August.

Why the continued speculation?

Tauzin over the years has made a lot of friends in the entertainment industry. He also has a lot of the personal skills necessary to replace the legendary Valenti, who has managed to keep fractious Hollywood interests united on public policy.

He's a quick study on new issues and uses his jocular style to make friends in both political parties. Also, he's rakish enough that no one would have a hard time seeing him jump from public servant to lobbyist. "He has a lot of qualities that would serve MPAA well," said Michael Gardner, a Washington attorney who has represented producers, writers and other Hollywood execs.

Gossip about his plans reached fever pitch during the last week of June, when Congress Daily, a Capitol Hill tip sheet, quoted unnamed Republican sources predicting Tauzin would resign this year. The publication also said GOP leaders had begun discussions about a successor to Tauzin as chairman of the commerce panel.

Days later, Tauzin tried to put the speculation to rest. In a "Dear Colleague" letter to fellow House members, Tauzin said he plans to seek re-election in 2004. He also laid out plans for the Commerce Committee's agenda for the coming session, noting that GOP term limits for committee chairman allow him to remain at his Commerce Committee post until 2006.

Yet the rumors persist, in part because few believe the 60-year-old Tauzin would pass up the lucrative MPAA post, which currently pays roughly 10 times his $154,700 congressional salary. Also Capitol Hill publications have reported that Tauzin's son, now working in community relations for BellSouth, has voiced an interest in running for the Congressional seat when dad steps down.

The Louisiana lawmaker also is leading the fight, at risk to the populist image he's crafted for hometown voters, to protect the FCC's recent relaxation of media-ownership limits from the increasingly popular effort by many in Congress to reinstate previous restrictions. While that may generate some ill will with folks back home, it would put him in good stead with MPAA members like Viacom and Disney, which both own TV networks that want to see the cap raised.

But Johnson said the 81-year-old Valenti assured Tauzin the job won't be opening imminently. "They haven't approached us, nor did RIAA when their job was open."

MPAA officials refused to comment on Valenti's status or any future replacement.

Tauzin, first elected to Congress in 1978, has been an ally of both broadcasters and the cable industry. As chairman of the Commerce Committee, he has brought both industries into his office to negotiate a truce in the war of digital must carry and has brokered industry deals for cable-ready DTV equipment. Tauzin has stuck by his pro-deregulatory positions even when popular opinion has appeared to go against the industries.

In the past he has helped force the FCC to back down from plans to require broadcasters to give free airtime to candidates and to scale back a low-power radio service that would have competed for audience share against commercial broadcasters. He also shepherded to enactment legislation requiring satellite TV providers to carry local broadcast stations.