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Taking Aim at the FCC

Senators Plot Two-Pronged Attacked After Rules Changes

In a move to air their displeasure with the Federal Communications Commission, a bipartisan group of Senators plans to launch twin attacks on the agency’s move this week to allow broadcasters to control more of the airwaves.

Though the efforts have little chance of succeeding in overturning the agency’s action, the Senators will undoubtedly cause a political stir that could make it less likely that the commission takes further actions to reduce regulations on broadcasters.

One group of Senators, led by senior members of the Appropriations Committee, plans to add a measure to an upcoming spending bill that would prohibit the FCC from implementing the rule changes.

Another set of Senators, including Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and presidential candidate John Kerry (D-Mass.), plans to employ a rarely used procedural move to effectively veto the agency’s action.

At issue is a 3-2 decision by the FCC on Monday that will make it easier for owners of television stations and newspapers to buy other media outlets.

For example, the new rules permit television broadcasters to own stations that serve up to 45 percent of the nation’s television viewers — an increase from 35 percent under the current rules.

The rules also would make it easier for companies to own newspapers and television stations in the same market.

Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) along with Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) — three strong allies of local broadcasters — plan to unveil a measure as early as today that they hope to attach to the Commerce, Justice, State and the judiciary appropriations bill, which funds the FCC.

The measure would prohibit the FCC from spending any money to implement the rule change, effectively blocking the move engineered by FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

Hollings, the top Democrat on the committees that fund and authorize the FCC, said he has put the Senate on notice that he plans to make sure that “no money be expended by the FCC to administer the Powell rule.”

“We never like to put those communications riders on, but this is such a disastrous proceeding,” Hollings added.

With the backing of the chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, the Senators stand a good chance of succeeding in the Senate.

However, the funding provision has little chance of taking effect because it faces strong opposition in the House.

“We have a blanket policy against any controversial policy riders,” said Jon Scofield, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

The chairmen of the House Energy and Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee also oppose the funding provision.

“It stands little or no chance of happening in the House,” said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

Senate Commerce Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) is expected to voice his support for the broadcast-ownership changes at a hearing today.

McCain regularly fights efforts by Senators to add measures affecting telecommunications policy to spending bills, often with limited success.

Meanwhile, a separate set of Senators plans to employ a little-used legislative tool backed by Republicans in the 1994 “Contract with America” to try to overturn the regulatory relief.

Dorgan and Kerry plan to push for a so-called notice of disapproval — a move that essentially allows Congress to veto moves by regulatory agencies, such as the FCC. They plan to introduce the resolution in the Senate in the next few days.

Under Congressional rules, Members of Congress have 60 days after the rule is unveiled to propose a notice of disapproval, which enjoys special protection from dilatory tactics.

For example, the sponsors of the resolution can dislodge the petition from the committee by rounding up just 30 signatures in the Senate.

Once on the Senate floor, the resolution can not be filibustered or amended. Debate is limited to 10 hours.

However, like the appropriations rider, there is little chance that the notice of disapproval will pass the House.

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