Congress returns to Washington this week for a final flurry of activity amid growing indications that the biggest media industry bill on tap-a controversial proposal making it easier for phone companies to offer television services-is unlikely to come up for a vote before legislators face elections in November.
Senators have less than 20 days to debate the telco issue and other legislation on the floor before the election break. That leaves little time to haggle over the so-called video franchising bill. Differences over another aspect of the proposal, which would prohibit Internet service providers from charging more for faster connections, may also make any vote on media issues a post-election prospect.
The communications bill being pushed by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, started as legislation to ease the way for phone companies to offer TV service without going city by city for franchises. It grew into a hodgepodge of significant media industry changes. The complexity of the bill has hampered its progress through Congress.
“If they had the votes, we would have voted,” Barry Piatt, a spokesman for Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who is leading the charge against the legislation. “If we were close, we would have voted.”
The difficulties in getting any media bill passed before the election may put off a day of reckoning for the cable industry, which stands to lose a tactical advantage over phone companies if the video franchising bill passes. It may also give Internet companies such as Google more time to muster support for the so-called net neutrality proposal, which would protect them from being charged more by Internet access providers.
Legislative analysts and industry association executives said that even if there is a vote, the chances of the bill passing before the November elections are slim. Any change in control of Congress after the election may further dim the media proposal’s prospects.
Beyond the video franchising and net neutrality provisions, the legislation would free cable providers from most local regulations. Under that scheme, even complaints about cable providers tearing up city streets would be handled by the Federal Communications Commission.
It also would bar the FCC from fining local stations for network programming content they hadn’t been able to preview; impose new limits on commercials on children’s video programming streamed on the Web; and limit the ability of media companies to link kids programs to Web sites
The legislation would also limit cellphone taxes and require the FCC to conclude its long delayed-report on the impact of TV violence on kids.
Similar legislation has already passed the House.
Sen. Stevens needs 60 votes to cut off debate on the media bill and put it up for a vote. A vote is unlikely until the senator has assurances he can count on getting those votes. A Republican aide said last week that Sen. Stevens is still working at getting enough votes to end debate.