Tauzin-Dingell broadband bill on the Fritz

Jun 4, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The Tauzin-Dingell broadband bill, designed to unleash the Baby Bell phone companies as formidable competitors against cable in the high-speed Internet access business, now faces a huge obstacle in the Senate: Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C.
The South Carolina lawmaker is expected to assume control of the influential Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday as a result of the power shift in the chamber spawned by Sen. James Jeffords’ defection from the Republican Party.
If the Tauzin-Dingell bill passes the House, where it faces additional obstacles, it’s likely to be stalled by Sen. Hollings when it comes before his Senate panel, which regulates communications issues.
“Clearly it would not be one of his priorities to knock out work on this legislation,” said Andrew Davis, communications director for Sen. Hollings.
“He is clearly a critic of the bill and is definitely wary of anything that undermines the competitiveness of the ’96 [Telecommunications Act],” the staffer said. The lawmaker has a reputation for faulting the Bells, which dominate the local phone business in their respective regions.
Hollings’ stance is bad news for sponsors Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who had assurances from outgoing committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that the panel would review the bill.
Just weeks ago, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., personally promised Rep. Tauzin that the upper chamber would consider the legislation. Sen. Lott made the promise despite a reputation for being close to long-distance companies, particularly Mississippi-based WorldCom, owner of MCI.
Molly Rowley, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.C., soon to be Senate majority leader, was not sure where he stands on the Tauzin-Dingell bill but did say he backs efforts to roll out broadband to rural America.
Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Tauzin, said his boss isn’t focused yet on the bill’s prospects in the Senate.
“This is trench warfare. We’re advancing one trench at a time,” he said. “We gotta get it out of the House first.”
Nevertheless, he said Rep. Tauzin is confident the House will pass the bill and that the Senate will take it up.
“If we do our job here in the House, there will be pressure in the Senate to at least hear the bill,” he said, adding that anyone who knows Rep. Tauzin knows he’s adept at the art of compromise.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee, headed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., has until June 18 to review the Tauzin-Dingell bill as part of a limited referral granted by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
The panel will hold a June 5 hearing on the legislation and will meet next week to debate and potentially amend those sections that fall under its jurisdiction.
Rep. Sensenbrenner has raised concerns about the measure and recently held a hearing on two alternative bills that require the Bells to open their local phone markets to competition before deregulating their provision of high-speed Internet access.
The Bells offer a form of broadband now but must open their systems to competing Internet providers and face other restrictions in providing the service. Rep. Tauzin will appeal to the House Rules Committee if Judiciary modifies the bill to his dissatisfaction, Mr. Johnson said.
In other developments, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is expected to replace Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., as head of the Senate communications subcommittee, which works in tandem with Senate Commerce. The Democrats plan to officially take control of the Senate on Tuesday.