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Deal on Media Could Bring Passage of Spending Bill

In an effort to prevent Bush's first veto, senior Republican lawmakers agree to cap television networks' reach at 39% of the nation's viewers.

November 25, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The White House and senior Republican lawmakers reached a compromise Monday on media consolidation rules that would limit the number of stations a television network could own nationwide, congressional aides said.

The deal cleared the way for passage in the Senate as early as today of a $330.7-billion bill funding more than a dozen departments and independent agencies, the foreign aid budget and the government of the District of Columbia for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. House passage is expected in early December.

The fiscal 2004 omnibus spending bill would create the first federally funded school voucher program, providing $13 million for low-income parents in the nation's capital to help pay private school tuition. It also would allow the Bush administration to proceed with new labor regulations stripping many workers of the right to collect overtime pay.

On TV station ownership, the bill settled a dispute stemming from regulations the Federal Communications Commission approved in June to ease limits on media industry consolidation. Critics say the FCC's rules would curtail alternative sources of information and entertainment; advocates say they would upgrade outdated industry rules without harming the public.

One of the new FCC rules would allow a single TV network to own enough stations to reach 45% of viewers nationwide. For weeks, lawmakers have sought to keep the ownership cap at 35%, with a provision that would block funding for the FCC to issue new broadcast licenses to any network exceeding that share.

In the deal struck Monday, according to a senior Senate GOP leadership aide, the cap would be set at 39%. The aide said the deal would avert what might have resulted in Bush's first veto.

A 39% cap would effectively freeze the status quo, preventing some major networks from growing larger but not requiring any significant divestitures. Both News Corp., parent of Fox, and Viacom, parent of CBS, own TV stations that reach about 39% to 40% of the nation's households.

ABC, owned by Walt Disney, and NBC, a unit of General Electric, would be able to continue buying stations because both fall comfortably below the old 35% cap.

Some lawmakers who oppose greater media consolidation complained they had not been consulted about the compromise, and predicted a bitter debate on the Senate floor.

"For them to try to come in at the last minute to serve big corporate interests is outrageous," said Barry Piatt, spokesman for Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). "Apparently the rules don't matter until it comes out their way. Sen. Dorgan does not know how you can go back and negotiate an issue that has already been openly discussed and closed."

The media consolidation issue had stood as one of the last significant obstacles to passage of the omnibus spending measure, which stitched together seven spending bills that for various reasons had not cleared Congress.

Earlier Monday, some Republicans were urging the White House to back down from confrontation.

"My advice would be: If you're winning 99 out of 100, you should declare victory," said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference ranks third in the party leadership.

One critic of the FCC rules took an even harder line, saying Congress should stick with the 35% limit and dare Bush to issue his first veto, which he had threatened to do.

"They can veto it if they want to," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), "and I'm going to vote to override them. It'd be a huge mistake." But Lott's view apparently did not prevail.

Even with the FCC compromise, there was still a chance the omnibus bill could stall for the year. As a hedge, Congress has passed a stopgap measure to fund much of the government at fiscal 2003 levels through Jan. 31.

On other issues tied to the omnibus bill, lawmakers apparently agreed to speed the destruction of certain government records related to background checks on gun purchases. Critics had sought to slow the record-purging to help law enforcement.

GOP negotiators agreed to cut about $4 billion from the budgets of various government programs to free up money for increases Congress and the administration sought in education, veterans' health care, foreign aid and state grants for new voting systems. In a resolution to another dispute, House conservatives appeared to secure support for a provision that would block funding for the issuance of patents related to human cloning.

Bush is seeking to hold discretionary government spending in fiscal 2004 to $786 billion, although the government is expected to spend far more than that for the war in Iraq and other operations considered emergencies.

The omnibus bill apparently will not include any deal to extend a lapsed moratorium on Internet taxes, nor a proposal to raise subsidies for tobacco farmers. It also appeared unlikely that the bill would be used to help break a Senate impasse on energy legislation.

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Times staff writer Edmund Sanders contributed to this report.

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