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Senate Rejects Media Changes

But the vote for an effort to block relaxed FCC rules on ownership is probably symbolic.

September 17, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted Tuesday to reject controversial media ownership rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission this summer that would clear the way for greater media consolidation.

The rules, which a Philadelphia appellate court has already blocked from taking effect, would permit mergers between television stations and newspapers in the same market and allow broadcasters to expand their reach, both locally and nationally.

Tuesday's 55-40 bipartisan vote in support of a rarely invoked legislative veto is likely to prove symbolic in the end. Leaders in the House have said they had no plans to consider a similar move, and President Bush has threatened to veto any effort to block the FCC from implementing the new rules.

"Any prospect of this becoming a reality is minimal at best," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who led an effort to defeat the resolution.

Although McCain said he was opposed to greater media consolidation, particularly in the radio industry, he said Congress should tackle the issue through the normal legislative process rather than using a device that would reverse the entire FCC rule-making effort.

Nonetheless, attempts to roll back at least one aspect of the FCC rules remains very much alive.

The House has passed a measure that would prevent the FCC from enforcing a proposed regulation that would permit TV networks to own local stations reaching 45% of the national audience, up from the current 35%. The Senate is expected to pass a similar provision when it votes on a must-pass spending bill in the next several weeks.

The legislative veto power was approved in the 1990s under the Congressional Review Act and has been successfully used only once before. In 2001, the device was used to eliminate job safety rules passed near the end of the Clinton administration.

Opponents of the FCC rule changes -- led by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) -- said using a legislative veto was entirely appropriate.

"We must turn back the entire rule, even if we agree with part of it, in order to tell the FCC to go back and do it again," Dorgan told lawmakers Tuesday during a debate on the Senate floor.

Dorgan was joined by several high-profile Republicans who expressed concern that a few media companies would gain control over viewpoints expressed on television.

"It will be too late to go back and retrofit," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas).

Though widely expected, the vote was another setback for FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, who made the loosening of media ownership rules one of his top priorities. Though Powell has kept silent during most of the debate in Congress in recent months, he issued a statement within minutes of Tuesday's vote.

"This resolution, if passed by the House and signed by the president, would only muddy the media regulatory waters," Powell said. "It would bring no clarity to media regulation, only chaos."

Since the resolution would prevent the FCC from reissuing similar rules, Powell said the agency would be prohibited from fixing many of the problems cited in recent years by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has overturned and remanded many of the rules.

Michael J. Copps, a Democratic FCC commissioner who opposed the rule changes, said Tuesday's vote underscored the public's growing anxiety about media consolidation.

"This vote in the Senate shows what happens when millions of Americans speak up on an issue of central importance to our democracy," Copps said.

Eager to avoid a presidential standoff with Congress, House Republican leaders vowed to defeat all efforts to roll back the FCC rules.

The Senate resolution is "dead on arrival," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). He noted that proponents failed to garner the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto.

House leaders are expected to use the same threat of a presidential veto to remove the provision on the national TV cap from the spending bill when it reaches conference committee.

Last week, the Bush administration reiterated its support for the new FCC rules.

"The new FCC local and national media ownership rules more accurately reflect the changing media landscape and the current state of network station ownership, while guarding against undue concentration in the marketplace," according to a statement issued by the Office of Management and Budget.

Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.

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