Backroom rollback effort roils solons
WASHINGTON — “The fix is in.”
Those are the words of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking Tuesday about the fate of Congress’ efforts to roll back a key part of the Federal Communications Commission’s new media ownership rules.
McCain was reacting to a deal cut by the White House and Republican leaders late last year that will prevent Viacom/CBS and News Corp./Fox from being forced to sell off any TV stations.
Bipartisan opponents of the new ownership regs worked overtime last year to pass language through both houses of Congress that would restore a 35% cap on the percentage of TV households one company can reach after the FCC raised the limit to 45% last June.
But during last-minute negotiations, administration officials and Republicans changed the language in the final bill — without input from Democrats — to 39% in order to prevent the two media behemoths from being forced to divest some of their holdings.
Critics in Congress decried the move, as well as other secret deals to cut overtime compensation for workers and prevent the government from labeling food with its country of origin, and stalled action before lawmakers left town for the winter recess.
Congress returned Tuesday, but no progress had been made. Democrats continued to voice their anger and stalled the massive spending bill one more time, although they conceded they would be forced to pass it later this week. If Congress fails to move the bill, many parts of the federal government would be forced to operate on last year’s funding levels, some $6 billion less than the current legislation contains.
Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) Tuesday roundly criticized Republicans for cutting Democrats out of the loop during final negotiations. He said he and his colleagues were preventing action on the legislation to give Republicans one last chance to change their minds and reverse the deals on media ownership, overtime and food labeling.
“We want (the Republicans) to fix it,” Daschle told reporters. “But no matter what, these issues are not going away. We will find other ways to address them.”
McCain, who opposes the bill’s $820 billion pricetag, called it “an insult to all Americans who pay taxes” and vowed to oppose it any way he could.
Clearly chagrined, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who championed the rollback efforts, said the spending bill with the 39% cap likely would pass Thursday. Dorgan wrote a bill that would revoke all the revised FCC rules in one fell swoop, but that legislation is stuck in the House, where GOP leaders are refusing to move it.
“Hopefully we can find a way to light a fire under some House members,” he told Daily Variety, noting the bill needs the support of just 10 lawmakers to force a vote.