Departing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell bid farewell Thursday to the agency he led through a thicket of controversies amid signs the White House has narrowed to two the contenders for his job.
Bush administration officials are considering as early as next week nominating either current Republican FCC Commissioner Kevin J. Martin or Michael D. Gallagher, assistant secretary for telecommunications in the Commerce Department, according to FCC and industry sources.
Martin has been the front-runner since Powell announced in January his intention to leave the agency, which oversees the telephone, broadcasting and satellite industries. Martin has strong White House ties, having worked in President Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. In addition, Bush could elevate Martin to FCC chairman and avoid full Senate confirmation, which is not required when such a shift is made.
Gallagher, also a Republican, has emerged as a strong contender, thanks to intense lobbying by the wireless industry and support from his mentor, former Commerce Secretary Don Evans.
A onetime lobbyist for Verizon Wireless who earned his law degree from UCLA, Gallagher has urged wider industry deployment of higher-speed Internet access.
He also played a key role in urging the military to free up more government-controlled communications airwaves for use by the booming wireless industry.
Although currently a government official, Gallagher would require Senate confirmation. Through a spokesman, Gallagher declined to comment.
Powell's final meeting involved presiding over a vote by commissioners to extend "truth-in-billing" rules to wireless carriers, requiring that bills consumers receive be "brief, clear, non-misleading and in plain language."
Consumers have complained that wireless phone plans often include murky fees.
For Powell, the son of former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the meeting turned into an emotional affair. Powell has often been a lightning rod for critics, both for his strong stance at enforcing indecency standards and for advocating a loosening of media consolidation rules.
Addressing his colleagues, Powell choked back tears, saying, "Government service is not lucrative; it takes a painful toll on you." But, he added, "I've loved every single moment of it."
After the meeting, Powell told reporters that he has offered his thoughts to the White House about the job in general, but has no indication of who will be picked as his successor.
The White House has interviewed several candidates for the post. In addition to Gallagher, the list includes Rebecca A. Klein, former chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, sources said.
Political experts said Bush's lengthy search for a new FCC chairman suggested that the White House was reluctant to name Martin.
But, they added, it would be unusual for the White House at the last minute to embrace a candidate requiring Senate confirmation without first vetting it on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees the FCC.
Stevens said through a spokeswoman Thursday, "I've not had discussions with the White House concerning the appointment of an FCC chairman." A Capitol Hill aide working with a group of 33 Republican House members who last month wrote Bush urging him to appoint an FCC chairman who would be tough on indecency, said members of the group haven't heard from the White House either.
Sources said that in addition to nominating a replacement for Powell, White House officials are weighing whether to fill another potential agency vacancy when they announce his successor. That's because FCC Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy, a Republican, has indicated that she intends to leave.