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FCC Rules Are Dealt Setback in Senate

Committee votes to keep TV station owners from reaching more than 35% of the national market.

September 05, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Momentum to overturn the Federal Communications Commission's revamped media-ownership rules continued to build Thursday as a Senate committee voted to keep any broadcaster from owning television stations reaching more than 35% of the national audience.

The vote came one day after a federal appellate court in Philadelphia issued a temporary stay against all of the FCC's new rules from taking effect until legal challenges can be resolved.

It also moved Congress one step closer to a showdown with President Bush, who has threatened to veto any rollback of the FCC's loosening of long-standing ownership regulations.

"We oppose that provision and will work with Congress to try to have it fixed before it reaches the president's desk," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said after Thursday's vote.

The Senate Appropriations Committee attached the 35% cap provision to a must-pass $38-billion spending bill for 2004 that funds various government and law enforcement agencies. In July, the House passed its own spending bill with a similar provision.

In June, the FCC voted to raise the national TV cap to 45%. The agency, led by FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, argued that the 35% cap was outdated and that there was little harm in allowing television networks to buy more stations.

But the change -- one of several proposed alterations to media ownership rules -- sparked a bipartisan revolt in Congress, which had set the cap at 35% in 1996.

Several senators expressed support Thursday for reversing additional regulatory changes called for by the FCC, including one that permits cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same market. But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) persuaded panel members to not go that far. By matching the language in the House measure -- which deals strictly with the 35% cap -- the odds are better that the rollback will survive when the bills are reconciled in conference committee.

"We are going to get this bill to the president as quickly as I think it should be," Stevens said.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill this month. That will give opponents and supporters another chance to add or remove provisions. Congressional staffers said it was too early to predict whether the 35% cap provision will end up in the final version.

Supporters of the relaxed rules vowed to continue their fight to kill provisions aimed at rolling back the agency's work.

"This is just the beginning of the fight," said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.). House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) is trying to gather enough signatures from House members to demonstrate that a presidential veto could not be overturned.

"The White House will have a big role in this," said Bob Okun, lobbyist for NBC. "The threat of a presidential veto is important in the appropriations process. It's something Congress has to take very seriously."

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