Prospects for passing a sweeping telecom deregulation bill this year were dealt a discouraging blow last week amid squabbling over telephone company issues and new doubts surrounding the leadership of Sen. Larry Pressler(R-S.D.).

Pressler is chairing the House-Senate conference committee picked to hammer out differences in competing versions of legislation passed by the two houses of Congress earlier this year. Many of this year’s media mega-mergers are predicated on final passage of the bill, which sanctions unprecedented media concentration, lifts FCC rate regulation of most cable prices and permits head-to-head competition among cablers and phone companies.

Complaints heard

Congressional sources said Pressler came in for criticism at a closed-door Nov. 30 meeting of a handful of House-Senate conferees, with complaints centered on the conference committee’s snail’s pace.

Even though aides to House and Senate members have held laborious meetings in recent weeks to resolve conflicts, there was no success with major issues, sources said.

Media concentration issues

For example, House-Senate staffers are “not even remotely close” to resolving questions regarding how much media concentration should be permitted to benefit a single broadcaster, according to one staff aide. The staffer claimed that most of last week was wasted. Asked whether the bill will be passed this year, the staff aide said, “Don’t bet the ranch.”

Other key sticking points involve Bell companies’ entry into the long-distance market, and whether rural, universal telephone service provisions should be included in the final bill.

Pressler has called a public meeting for Dec. 5 of all House-Senate conferees, but there were doubts late last week as to whether the session will actually occur. Similar efforts to hold public meetings have been canceled. Meanwhile, one source claimed House Speaker Newt Gingrich has set aside time for a vote on the telecom measure the week of Dec.11.

Conventional Beltway wisdom holds that even if Congress fails to act on the telecom bill this year, lawmakers will eventually get around to passing the measure in early 1996. That way, if President Clinton carries out his veto threat, there presumably would still be time to revise the measure so that it’s acceptable to the White House before the ’96 campaign gets into full swing.

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