House Slaps Powell

Defying earlier predictions, a rollback of the FCC's actions on broadcasters' nationwide audience reach has passed the House of Representatives and is heading to the Senate and a likely White House attempt to crush the popular and bipartisan backlash against the commission.

The House approved the must-pass budget legislation 400-21 after its Appropriations Committee approved by 40-25 a provision that included setting the maximum reach at 35 percent of the nation, where it was before the FCC's June 2 order increasing it to 45 percent. The move bypassed the House Commerce Committee, where Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) had vowed to stand up for the Powell package.

The Senate has already passed legislation of its own that would effectively strike down the FCC's raising of the cap. Differences in the House and Senate deals will likely end up in a House-Senate conference committee; White House officials said they would try to strike the rollback from the appropriations package.

If the rollback emerges from the conference committee intact, it would hand President Bush a rare political conundrum: Veto a measure with broad bipartisan support or sign it, severely rebuking the Republican FCC majority and undermining what might have been the most significant action to date by FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

Attaching the measure to an appropriation also assures consideration after Congress returns from August recess; standalone measures on the ownership issue faced tough fights for attention in a Congress facing ongoing conflict in Iraq and ever-growing budget deficit.

The House action also could give NAB the "clean" rollback bill it wanted. The group, while insisting it still favored a return to the 35 percent cap, had withdrawn its support of measures it feared could also end up rolling back FCC orders NAB wanted, such as loosening of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership laws and the local television duopoly rules.

Before the full House vote, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said that there was still "potential for mischief," namely adding rollback provisions opposed by NAB. "Should by some chance this emerge only as a 35 percent rollback, we would obviously enthusiastically support that bill."

And in fact, House Democrats tried exactly that kind of mischief Wharton predicted, but failed to get their additional rollbacks on the bill.

After the full House action, Wharton was not immediately available for comment on whether the bill was one the NAB could support.