Calling President Bush's bluff over his threat of a veto, House and Senate negotiators have tentatively agreed to block new FCC rules that would allow the broadcast networks to acquire a greater number of local television stations.
The negotiators are using an old Congressional tactic to circumvent a presidential veto. They buried the ownership issue—without debate—into an end-of-year omnibus spending bill that provides $13 million for poor students in Washington that can be used to pay for private schooling. The legislation would be a victory for President Bush, creating the first federally financed school voucher program—a longtime Republican pet project.
Included in the legislation is a provision barring the FCC from letting the networks own stations that, all together, reach 45 percent of the nation’s viewers. That means the current limit of 35 percent will remain in effect for at least a year.
Supporters of limited media ownership are betting President Bush will never veto a bill that supports his cause. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who serves as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, engineered the deal. He told the Associated Press that he expected “a verbal spanking” from the White House as a result of the action, but not a veto.
The White House had no immediate comment.
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton expressed optimism. “We are pleased that the 35 percent cap roll back provision is part of the omnibus bill but until this thing is signed into law, this is not a done deal.”
The legislation does not address new rules involving cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations. There is no word yet on the fate pending legislation that would block those rules as well.