Senate Democrats cave to pressure from Republicans

WASHINGTON — The six-month congressional battle to roll back the Federal Communications Commission’s new media ownership rules is finally over.

Senate Democrats caved to pressure from Republicans and the White House Thursday after weeks of filibustering action on a mammoth $373 billion spending bill that also lowered a cap on the percentage of TV households one company can reach, from the FCC’s new 45% down to 39%.

Senators approved final passage of the measure 65-28 and the bill now awaits President Bush’s signature.

A bipartisan group of mostly Democratic opponents of the FCC rule wanted to tighten limits on TV station ownership much further — to the 35% cap that existed before the agency relaxed a host of media ownership rules early last June. They succeeded in attaching language restoring the 35% cap to spending bills that passed both houses of Congress.

But the White House was dead set against any effort to undo the FCC’s work and had threatened to veto any bill that tried to do so.

Late last year GOP leaders struck a deal with the White House without Democratic input changing the language in the final version of the bill to 39% — a level that would conveniently free Viacom/CBS and News Corp./Fox from being forced to sell off some of their TV stations.

Before the final vote Thursday, Democrats pleaded with Republicans to change the measure, then lambasted them for refusing to do so.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) accused Republicans of running an undemocratic process that ignored months of bipartisan negotiations and legislation passed in both houses. “This bill was constructed through a process that the Founding Fathers would be ashamed of,” she said. “It is troubling in a democracy that the executive branch is able to essentially usurp the authority of the legislative branch.”

The National Assn. of Broadcasting, which had lobbied hard for a return to the previous 35% cap, appeared happy the contentious debate was finally over. “We’re pleased the national television ownership cap issue appears to be resolved by the passage of this legislation,” NAB topper Eddie Fritts said in a statement. “We salute all broadcasters who worked with Congress to reach this compromise that recognizes the enduring value of free, local television stations.”

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