WASHINGTON — Anyone up for a classic game of chicken?
The six-month-long legislative battle over media ownership in Washington is down to the final decisive confrontation.
Republicans and Democrats have squared off over a massive, omnibus-spending bill that contains language rolling back a key part of the Federal Communications Commission’s new media ownership regs. The FCC, under prodding by Republican chairman Michael Powell, passed the controversial rules June 2 to a storm of protest by the public and in Congress.
A vote on the bill is skedded for Tuesday, and Republicans desperately want to pass it and begin the new year’s budget process. But Democrats have been blocking the bill since before Congress’ winter recess, livid about being left out of key negotiations on a number of issues, not least of which is media ownership.
During the summer and fall months, lawmakers attached language to the FCC spending bill restoring the cap on the percentage of TV households one company can reach from the new 45% back to the original 35%. But in the final negotiations to hash out other differences between the House and Senate bills, the White House and GOP leaders in Congress — without Democratic input — decided to change the cap to 39%, a move that would allow Viacom/CBS and News Corp/Fox to keep all their current holdings instead of being forced to sell some to comply with the prior limit.
Democrats decried the move and many other last-minute negotiations on the overall spending bill as undermining the work of Congress in an attempt to protect corporate America. Over the winter break, Democrats’ resentment only grew and they vowed to keep the pressure on.
Republicans are equally determined to move the bill and last week pulled a trump card of their own. In a letter to intransigent Democrats, the GOP leadership listed the pet projects each senator wants and threatened to pass a continuing resolution bill that would simply fund the government at last year’s levels, $6 billion less than the new bill would provide.
If that happens, there will be no pet projects to boast about in upcoming elections, the new 45% station cap would remain in place and federal government programs would have to limp along at last year’s levels.
“Attached you will find a list of projects that may be of particular interest to you,” the GOP leaders wrote. “The omnibus will not only fund these important priorities for your state, it will also fund programs like agriculture, veterans medical care and education.”
Democrats aren’t caving yet. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the lead Senate opponent against the FCC’s new media ownership rules, is trying to stand firm, as is Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt on Friday said Democrats are determined to show Republicans that they will not tolerate the treatment they received late last year when they were left out of negotiations and legislation was changed unilaterally after it had been passed through committee.
Democrats will meet Tuesday at noon to hatch a plan. Piatt said they could either decide to continue taking a stand on the omnibus bill or find another means of teaching Republicans a lesson.
“Either way, we’re resolved that this is never going to happen again,” he said.