Congress to Bush: Can’t touch this

Congress voted last night to override a White House veto of cable reregulation legislation, breaking President Bush’s unblemished veto record and handing him a humiliating defeat less than a month before the election.

Enactment of the bill represents a stinging defeat for the cable industry and Hollywood, two traditionally ardent adversaries who paired up as strange bedfellows to kill the legislation.

Their efforts were thwarted by a coalition of consumer groups, broadcasters, organized labor and senior citizen groups stitched together to battle an industry accused of being price-gouging monopolists.

The Senate voted 74-25 to override the Bush veto; the House of Representatives followed with a vote of 308-114. It takes a two-thirds majority in both houses to override a presidential veto.

The White House spent the last week applying massive pressure on Senate Republicans to flip-flop on earlier votes in hopes of lining up the 34 votes needed to prevent the bill from becoming law. That strategy would have required a switch of nine Republican votes, but Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kans.) said after the tally that the effort fell one vote short.

Seven lawmakers were willing to switch in support of the president –which would have brought the vote tally against the bill to 32– while an eighth senator was willing only to provide the 34th vote to sustain the veto, Dole said. However, the White House was unable to come up with one extra lawmaker willing to support the president, Dole said.

When it became apparent that the veto would not be upheld, the eight GOP members decided to support the majority and override the veto, according to Dole.

Sources said the seven senators willing to switch their votes were John Warner (R-Va.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.). James Jeffords (R-Vt.) was believed to have been willing to provide the 34th vote to sustain the veto.

The veto override may have been sealed when Sen. David Durenberger (R- Minn.) announced hours before the vote that he would go against Bush. Durenberger had been wooed intensely by the White House in the last week, and was one of several Republicans who had breakfast with Bush Sunday morning. Another target the White House was unable to reel in was Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

National Cable Television Assn. prez James Mooney said after the vote, “We continue to believe the bill is a Trojan horse; it’s so loaded with expensive goodies for our commercial rivals that it will cause rates to go up, not down.”

The cable loss is certain to revive speculation that Mooney’s future as head of the NCTA may be in jeopardy.

One D.C. trade exec whose job seems very secure after the vote, however, is Eddie Fritts, head of the National Assn. of Broadcasters. Broadcasters scored a major lobbying coup by successfully persuading lawmakers to insert into supposedly “pro-consumer” legislation a “retransmission consent” provision that could require cable operators to pay for the carriage of local station signals.

A ‘great victory’

Fritts hailed the override as a “great victory for consumers and a great boost to competition for the cable monopoly. … We look forward to a new television marketplace that will treat both consumers and broadcasters more fairly.”

Opponents of the bill attacked retransmission consent, and claimed the measure will invariably lead to higher rates. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) labeled retrans “the greatest con job of recent time.”

Backers of the bill feared that strident statements from the Clinton-Gore campaign following the Bush veto accusing the president of protecting his “wealthy friends” in the cable industry might prompt Republicans to back the president’s veto.

However, Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), argued that cable legislation is not a partisan issue. Danforth noted that presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan had had vetoes successfully overridden.

“It is no weakness on the part of the president of the United States if he is overridden,” said Danforth.

However, Dole claimed the bill had become a matter of “partisanship to the nth degree.”

“This has become a political game,” said Dole. “The merits of this went out the window two or three weeks ago. … It’s an effort to embarrass the president one month before the election, one week before the first debate.”

By passing the bill, Congress essentially rejected the sweeping deregulation bill it passed to jumpstart the cable industry in 1984.

The rereg measure provides rate regulation of the basic cable tier, access to cable programming at reasonable rates for “wireless” cable and direct broadcast satellite services, and federal customer service standards.

Motion Picture Assn. of America prez Jack Valenti, who lobbied hard to kill the legislation, was declining comment on the override, according to an MPAA spokeswoman.

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