WASHINGTON — The fight to re-regulate cable television has escalated from a relatively restrained consumer issue to a major political struggle for the White House, with President Bush fighting hard to extend his long winning streak of veto fights with Congress.
The President is expected to veto the cable bill today, setting the stage for a dramatic last-minute override vote in the Senate just before Congress adjourns next week.
The White House was working hard Friday to turn Republican defectors who voted for the bill last month. It would allow the government to set ceiling prices for basic cable service, which includes network and local channels, public television and educational stations.
White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III made a fervent appeal on Friday to a group of Republican senators at a meeting in the office of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), sources said. He appealed to their loyalty to keep the President's string of 35 vetoes intact. All eight at the meeting had voted for the bill when it passed the Senate last month, but only Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) vowed Friday to change his vote, sources said.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill on Sept. 22 by a 74-25 vote, despite a threat from the President to veto the measure because, he said, it would "cost the economy jobs, reduce consumer programming choices and retard the development of growth-oriented investments." The Administration needs 34 Senate votes to sustain a veto.
The struggle has created strange political alliances and divided influential members of one of the President's strongest support groups--the religious right.
The National Assn. of Religious Broadcasters, proclaiming that the "future of Christian television is at stake," warned the President this week that it will fight hard to override his veto. The religious broadcasters say their programs suffer from discrimination and rejection by local cable operators. They want the bill passed to force the cable systems to carry their broadcasts.
On the other side, the Rev. Pat Robertson, who with his son, Tim, controls the lucrative Family Channel, wants the legislation killed. By limiting the rates charged by cable companies, the bill could reduce the revenue available for cable systems to buy programming from networks such as the Family Channel.
Robertson, a staunch supporter of Bush, has been helping the fight against the bill. In an unusual alliance, the Hollywood entertainment industry is marching side by side with Robertson, an outspoken critic of the content and cultural attitudes of movies and TV shows.
Hollywood doesn't like the bill because it would allow TV stations to get new money by collecting fees--estimated at $1 billion a year or more--from cable companies for carrying their programs. The studios that created the programs will not share in this revenue.
The bill would require the government to establish a limit for "reasonable" charges for basic cable service, which now costs an average of $20 a month. This level of service includes the regular broadcast channels operated by stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, NBC and the Fox network, local independent stations and the channels operated by local governments and educational stations.
A second level of service covers the plethora of channels offering sports, movies, news, home shopping and music videos. The government could intervene and set maximum rates if consumers complained that rates for these services were rising too rapidly.
There would be no price regulation for the premium channels, such as HBO, Showtime and Disney, and for pay-per-view events.
The charge for cable service has climbed about 60% in the last five years, more than twice the rate of inflation, prompting calls for government intervention in the industry, which was deregulated in 1984.