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Media Rule Change May Stick

Times Staff Writer

As Congress winds down for the year, time is running short for efforts to roll back media ownership rules that were relaxed this summer by the Federal Communications Commission.

Opponents of increased media consolidation, including some influential Republican lawmakers, are vowing to repeal one of the most controversial new FCC rules as part of a massive appropriations bill expected to be passed later this week.

But despite some early momentum in both the House and Senate, it appears that the major TV networks -- bolstered by the threat of a presidential veto -- have made headway in beating back attempts to reinstate a rule that prevents a broadcast company from reaching more than 35% of the country’s TV viewers. The FCC voted June 2 to raise the cap to 45%.

“This is going to be subject to ‘Final Jeopardy’ negotiations,” said Eric Ueland, deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

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Frist and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) told reporters Tuesday, in separate news conferences, that the FCC dispute had not yet been resolved; Frist said he expected it to be settled within days.

“My guess is that it will be dropped,” said John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), referring to a provision in an earlier appropriations bill that would reinstate the 35% cap. He added that congressional leaders were worried about a threat from President Bush to veto the spending bill, which includes vital funding for several government agencies, if it included the 35% cap provision.

“I don’t think we want to chance it,” he said.

But an unusual bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is pushing to salvage the provision, and one House Republican aide said Tuesday that he was confident it would be part of the final compromise.

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Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has said repeatedly in recent days that he intends to push to keep the 35% cap provision, and he predicted that Bush would not veto the legislation in the face of strong support in Congress.

The battle started in June when the FCC voted 3 to 2 to relax many long-standing media ownership rules, including the 35% cap and a ban against owning a TV station and newspaper in the same market. (Tribune Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times, lobbied to relax many of the FCC rules.)

Critics said the FCC vote cleared the way for major networks such as Viacom Inc.-owned CBS and News Corp.-owned Fox to buy more TV stations across the country, giving them more control over television programming.

More than a dozen lawsuits were filed challenging the new rules, and a federal appeals court in Philadelphia has temporarily blocked the rules from taking effect.

The House voted in July to insert language reinstating the 35% cap into a one-year spending bill that funds the FCC and numerous other agencies. In September, the Senate appropriations committee passed identical language in a comparable appropriations bill.

At the same time, the full Senate invoked a rarely used congressional veto to throw out the entire FCC rule making. But the veto effort stalled in the House, where leaders have rejected calls to put the issue to a vote.

In the face of opposition from the White House and media industry lobbyists, neither legislative effort passed in both houses, and now time is running out as Congress aims to adjourn for the year this weekend. Battles over judicial appointments, an energy bill and Medicare reforms have pushed the media ownership battle to a back burner.

It appears most likely that a compromise will be hammered out behind closed doors by a handful of top lawmakers and White House officials, and then inserted into a giant omnibus spending bill. It remains unclear whether the final agreement will be subject to amendment by lawmakers unhappy with the result.

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Media industry lobbyists are cautiously optimistic because such negotiations often give the White House more leverage, and administration officials have consistently expressed their opposition to any efforts to roll back the FCC rules. A White House spokesman said Tuesday that the administration’s position had not changed.

“The facts are on our side,” said one media industry lobbyist. “But it’s not over until it’s over. You don’t ever want to underestimate” the opposition.

If a resolution cannot be reached, lawmakers might also decide to pass a temporary spending bill and revisit the issue in January, lobbyists said.

“It’s really up in the air now,” said Gene Kimmelman, co-director of Consumers Union in Washington. “But there’s still a shot.”

Even if attempts to reinstate the 35% cap fail this year, Kimmelman predicted, the fight would resume next year.

“The more the White House tried to bottle this up,” he said, “the more the pressure is going to mount.”

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Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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