WASHINGTON — Senators opposed to the Federal Communications Commission’s new media ownership rules smell blood and are gearing up for a broader attack.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) vowed Tuesday to lead a fight on the Senate floor if his colleagues limit their efforts to gutting the new regs on TV ownership. McCain, in his strongest statements opposing the FCC’s action, wants to throw out a new regulation allowing companies to own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.
“I think it’s rank hypocrisy to separate the two (rules),” McCain said in a brief interview. “It’s absolutely hypocritical.”
The FCC voted June 2 to relax a number of rules restricting media concentration, handing the major nets the power to buy more stations and grow even bigger. Activists and consumer groups of all political stripes immediately decried the decision, and momentum is building on Capitol Hill to undo the agency’s action.
Bush backs off
For weeks, White House aides have advised President Bush to veto any legislation that reaches his desk, but senators on Tuesday said he ground has shifted and the administration is beginning to back off the veto threat.
The House last week passed a bill aimed at tightening the TV ownership limits. As part of its new rules, the FCC increased from 35% to 45% the portion of the national TV aud one company can reach. The House voted to roll that limit back to 35% and defeated several attempts to purge other parts of the commission’s rules.
McCain, the chairman of the powerful Commerce Committee, has been circumspect about his feelings about the FCC regs for months as he presided over several hearings on the topic, expressing concern only about consolidation in the radio industry.
But on Tuesday he blamed the National Assn. of Broadcasters for leading a fight to parry any campaign to preserve the 35% cap and said he would “do whatever he had to do” to persuade the Senate to pass the broader rollback bill.
McCain must first get past Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Stevens is motivated to return the cap to 35% but opposes any wider effort to purge the new regs, he confirmed Tuesday.
The House defied their GOP leaders and the White House by attaching language restoring the 35% TV audience reach to a must-pass spending bill. The Senate is poised to take similar action if the upper house’s Republican leadership tries to block their efforts.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) Tuesday said he and other GOP leaders have not taken a position on the issue yet.
Earlier on Tuesday, Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) announced they had the votes to pass a resolution of disapproval (known as a congressional veto) of all of the new FCC broadcasting rules.
Dorgan will bring the measure directly to the Senate floor for a vote in early September, dispensing with action by the Commerce Committee. Signatures from 35 of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle allow him to expedite the process in this way and McCain has agreed to fast track the bill, which has 20 bipartisan sponsors.
“This galloping concentration in broadcast ownership is unhealthy,” Dorgan said. “And there is a deep reservoir of concern about this.”
Dorgan also defended himself against charges made by FCC chair Michael Powell in a New York Times editorial Tuesday; Powell said lawmakers want to overturn the new rules in order to have greater control of what the news media reports.
“That’s absurd,” Dorgan responded. “I have no idea what he had for breakfast before he wrote that, this has nothing to do with content.”
Dorgan and Lott argued that their campaign to undo the FCC’s actions is not a personal attack on Powell and should not be viewed as an effort to persuade him to resign his post.