As Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) steps before cameras today to unveil his eagerly awaited proposal for overhauling the nation's 60-year-old communications laws, key Senate Republicans remain divided over how best to deregulate the cable TV and telephone industries.
In a speech Tuesday, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, said a majority of his colleagues favor simultaneous removal of legal barriers for all telecommunications competitors. But Packwood indicated that his boss, Pressler, favors a transition period to ensure that entrenched rivals don't use their market power to thwart competition.
"I am a deregulator," Packwood said. "Except for the possibility of" the government allocating the airwaves to commercial users, he said, "we could almost get out of this (regulatory) business."
Packwood, whose views are generally supported by powerful Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), said he is hopeful that a telecommunications revision bill will emerge. But he said it will be months before the current disagreements in the Senate can be resolved, given the urgency of other legislative matters such as the balanced budget amendment.
"Everything takes longer. . . . I don't know if it's next week . . . or next quarter," said Packwood, who later said he didn't expect a final bill before late summer or fall. He also said the measure should eliminate cable television rate regulations.
Pressler, who recently acknowledged that "many groups (and) senators can checkmate" such legislation, could not be reached for comment.
But a Capitol Hill source said late Tuesday that he was taking the extraordinary step of walking around the Capitol to personally distribute copies of his "discussion draft" legislation, and was asking fellow senators to respond to the proposal within two weeks.
A Pressler aide said he will release the draft bill and answer questions about it today.
The Senate dispute over telecommunications reform threatens reform measures the Clinton Administration has said are crucial to the growth of the U.S. economy and continued expansion of the burgeoning telecommunications industry. Though there is bipartisan support for telecom reform, competing industry factions have different interests and have been unable to agree as to how to proceed.
Just last year, Capitol Hill lawmakers almost succeeded in producing such legislation when a pair of telecommunications bills sailed through the House as well as a key Senate subcommittee.
But the Senate measure ran aground in September, when Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) tabled it amid bickering between long-distance carriers and the regional Bell phone companies. The two factions remain at odds over the ground rules for the so-called Baby Bells' entering the lucrative long-distance business. In addition, cable TV interests want Congress to set ground rules for how the telephone industry may offer cable services.
Some observers lament that the climate in Congress is perhaps more partisan now than in September--dimming hope that the long-distance carriers, regional Bells and cable TV industry will be able to resolve their differences quickly.