WASHINGTON — President Clinton’s choice to be the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was put on hold Tuesday night while the Senate voted to approve three new commissioners for the regulatory agency.

The Senate approved Gloria Tristani, Harold Furchtgott-Roth and Michael Powell, but delayed for at least a day its final vote on William Kennard, who has been tapped to replace current chairman Reed Hundt.

Kennard, who has spent the last four years as the FCC’s general counsel, has attracted some critics in Congress for his role in a plan to restructure a trust fund that is used to subsidize phone service in rural areas.

Last week, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) said he would temporarily block Kennard’s nomination until his concerns about the so-called Universal Service Fund were addressed. In addition to Burns, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has also raised questions about Kennard’s views on the fund.

Burns and Stevens have said they would drop their opposition to the nominations if the rest of the Senate agreed to legislation that directed the FCC to review the Universal Service Fund decision. The Senate may take up their proposal as early as today. Burns and other senators who represent rural areas say FCC’s current plan will lead to rate hikes for the nation’s rural telephone customers.

But the Senate’s confirmation of the other three commissioners brings to an end the FCC careers of commissioners Rachelle Chong and James Quello. Chong will be replaced by Powell, while Tristani replaces Quello. Furchtgott-Roth will fill a vacancy created over a year ago by the departure of former commissioner Andrew Barrett.

Quello, who was appointed by President Nixon to the FCC, was one of the longest-serving political appointees in the Beltway bureaucracy. During his 23-year tenure at the FCC, Quello was closely allied with the broadcasting industry. Most recently he fought a rear-guard action against the new quota that requires TV stations to air at least three hours of educational television each week.

In 1995, he served as an ally to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. when civil rights groups filed a complaint at the FCC claiming that the Australian-based company had violated U.S. restrictions on foreign ownership of TV stations.

Chong, who was appointed in 1993 by President Clinton, was also a friend to the broadcasting industry. Like Quello, she opposed the kidvid quota. Chong often found herself in an alliance with Quello in efforts to thwart FCC chairman Hundt’s agenda.

The new commissioners will take office once they complete their ceremonial swearing-in rite. That could be completed for all three new commissioner by the end of next week.

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