Despite months of intense negotiations and a breakthrough agreement reached earlier this week, a sweeping overhaul of the nation's telecommunications laws will probably not be enacted this year because of 11th-hour objections by House Republicans who regard the legislation as too regulatory.
The massive and complex bill, which totaled 281 pages before the latest round of last-minute changes, was optimistically entitled 'Telecommunications Act of 1995."
But without final approval from a House-Senate conference committee that has been trying to nail down a compromise version of legislation passed by both chambers earlier this year, the chances of enactment before the new year diminished substantially Friday as members of Congress headed home for Christmas.
Despite the exodus of lawmakers from Capitol Hill, leaders of the 45-member conference committee quietly began circulating final language of the bill late Friday in hopes of gaining the support needed to pass legislation--conceivably sometime late next week but more likely not until next year. Conference committee leaders and the White House agreed on key points of the legislation Wednesday, only to see the long-sought deal attacked by other Republican conferees.
Congress is expected to return next Wednesday and resume consideration of the controversial measure, which would enable free local telephone companies, cable TV operators and long-distance carriers to compete in each other's markets.
Sources say the 11 senators serving on the conference committee are largely satisfied with the bill after negotiators late Thursday proposed a compromise on rules governing the entry of certain electric utilities into the telecommunications business and dropped a provision that would have barred phone companies from jointly marketing local and long-distance phone service for up to a year.
Several regional Bell telephone company executives, including US West Chairman Richard D. McCormick, had urged conferees to drop the one-year ban, saying the delay would put the Bells at a competitive disadvantage with long-distance carriers entering their local market.
Still, many House Republicans continued to complain that the bill is too regulatory and does not go far enough to allow broadcasters to amass more television, radio and cable properties.
What's more, Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), who has been fighting for years to open up the American communications industry to greater foreign investment, was reportedly disheartened that negotiators decided to drop an amendment that would have dramatically liberalized foreign investment rules.
But sources said Oxley, who on Wednesday was threatening to do what he could to make the bill as "dead as Elvis," has softened his opposition and is now working to have the deleted provision reinstated.
Despite the numerous delays and continued division over telecommunications reform, Wall Street investors and industry lobbyists continued to express optimism that a bill deregulating the nation's burgeoning communications industry will pass next year.
"We are still cautiously optimistic," said William N. Deatherage, a telecommunications analysts with Bear Stearns & Co. Inc. "I don't think they are so far apart they can't fashion a compromise."