GOP To Tackle Telecommunications

Political partisanship over information highway legislation appears to again be rearing its head in the new Congress, just as Republicans are taking charge of Capitol Hill for the first time in 40 years.

Sources said new Senate Commerce Committee chairman Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) is planning a hearing Jan. 9 to discuss the GOP version of telecommunications legislation that died in the Senate last year. News of the Pressler hearing rankled Democratic staffers on key communications committees, since the session will coincide with a previously scheduled White House “telecommunications summit” to be held elsewhere in D.C.

“This is clearly a move to upstage the White House,” complained one Democratic aide.

The Pressler bill – which has not yet been introduced – is expected to lift restrictions against telephone company entry into the cable TV business, and vice versa. Film studios would presumably benefit from passage of the legislation, since telcos could begin a new pipeline for delivering entertainment to the home.

Pressler’s staff declined comment, but sources said the lawmaker intends to invite Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kans.) to the Monday session.

Pressler reportedly also intends to invite the Vice President Al Gore, but Gore will unlikely be able to attend due to his prior commitment to the White House event, according to Democratic staffers.

The telecommunications bill, which would also lift barriers to local telephone company entry into the long distance market, died last year in the Senate due to a combination of partisan politics and opposition from the well-heeled phone companies.

In the wake of the November elections, Pressler insisted Republicans will be seeking bipartisan support for a more deregulatory telecom bill. But one congressional aide said Democrats have yet to be consulted on Pressler’s bill. “That’s a bad way to start if you want to do something that’s non-partisan,” said the staffer.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 4 Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) jointly introduced identical pieces of telecommunications legislation that easily cleared the House of Representatives last year.

As a result of the November GOP sweep, Dingell and Markey are now ranking minority members of the House Commerce Committee and the House telecommunications subcommittee, respectively after each serving long stints chairing those panels. The new chairman of the committee and subcommittee are Reps. Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) and Jack Fields (R-Texas), and they’re expected to offer their own bill in coming weeks.

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