WASHINGTON — House and Senate negotiators on Friday night voted to write broadcasting's so-called Fairness Doctrine into law, possibly forcing a showdown with President Reagan, who has warned that he would shut the government down with a veto if they included that provision in the massive spending bill they are working on.
The lawmakers remain deadlocked over another issue on which Reagan has threatened a veto--providing aid to the Nicaraguan rebels. Both provisions are being offered as amendments to the $600-billion spending measure, which is needed to fund most government operations for the next nine months. It would replace a stopgap spending measure that expired at midnight Friday.
They plan to return today to resume efforts to hammer out an agreement and may reconsider their vote on the Fairness Doctrine, particularly if they can work out a deal on Contra aid that is acceptable to Reagan.
The conferees did manage to agree on some matters, including a smoking ban on 85% of all airline flights for two years and a provision allowing as many as 20 states to raise speed limits to 65 m.p.h. on certain highways within their borders on which speed limits were not raised last spring. In addition, they added a provision that would ban Japanese firms from participating in public works projects unless U.S. firms are allowed to bid on such projects in Japan.
Republicans portrayed the spending bill as a critical test of how the President will deal with the Democratic Congress through the remainder of his term.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said that GOP lawmakers tried in a White House meeting Friday morning to impress on Reagan "how important it is for him to stick to his guns. Otherwise, (congressional Democrats) are just going to ride all over him in the final year of his presidency."
After the session, Michel declared: "We're giving notice to our Democratic counterparts that this is what the President has got to have. You want to test him? Test him!"
'What's the Point?'
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that the spending bill was the product of Reagan's deficit-reduction negotiations with Congress. "If they don't stick to it, what's the point of negotiating" in the future? the official asked.
Despite Reagan's threats, many in Congress have expressed doubts that the President would be willing to veto the spending legislation if he does not get his way on the Fairness Doctrine.
Until it was rescinded by the Reagan Administration earlier this year, that doctrine had for almost four decades required broadcasters to give persons holding opposing viewpoints time to argue their cases on the airwaves. The President already has vetoed one bill this year that would have made the doctrine law.
Opponents complain that the doctrine violates the right of free expression; supporters say it is necessary to guaranteeing a full and open debate of important issues, giving those who cannot afford expensive media campaigns an opportunity to have their views aired.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) warned those in doubt that Reagan is determined to prevent the doctrine from becoming law. "Is he going to veto it over the Fairness Doctrine?" Dole asked. "You bet he is."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said at the daily White House news briefing that Reagan "will stay in Washington until he gets bills that can be signed. The President made it clear to the group this morning that, while he would stay until the bill is passed, that means an acceptable bill."
Reagan has also demanded that the conferees provide the Contras at least as much nonlethal aid as was approved by the Senate last Friday--$9 million, plus an estimated $6 million or $7 million to transport the aid. However, House Democrats have said they will provide no more than $5.5 million, including transportation costs.
A major sticking point is whether the CIA may continue to deliver weapons that were bought with funds authorized in previous legislation but are still sitting in Central American warehouses. Currently, the agency is allowed until Jan. 1 to mix those lethal supplies with the loads of humanitarian aid that they deliver--such as food, clothing and medicine.
Michel quoted Reagan as having insisted that not shipping the arms would amount to "unilateral disarmament" of the Contras.
Although they insist that they do not want to abandon the rebels, the Democrats argue that a new infusion of weapons to the Contras would jeopardize the Central American peace process that began with a regional accord last month.
"The question is: Do you want to maintain (the Contras) while the peace process goes on, or do you want to carry on a war?" House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) asked.
"I am committed to the peace process," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), but he added: "Why should they (the Sandanistas) accept a cease-fire if we cut off funding for the resistance? Who are we putting the pressure on, the Sandanistas or the resistance?"