January 29, 1996

Stalled Communications Bill May Come to Vote


WASHINGTON -- House and Senate Republican leaders will try to pass the stalled communications bill this week, increasingly confident that they have resolved a dispute among themselves over provisions that reserve a valuable parcel of the nation's airwaves for digital television services.

But so many unexpected delays have already disrupted passage of the bill, which would overhaul the nation's 62-year-old communications law from top to bottom, that its prospects remain uncertain.

Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the majority leader, said late Friday on the Senate floor that he hoped to bring up the communications bill for a vote Thursday. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has said similar things privately, and he has listed the bill as one that could be voted on in the House some time this week.

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican whip, said Sunday on the NBC program "Meet the Press" that the communications bill would be one of the Senate's top priorities this week.

"I believe and I hope certainly that we're going to have votes on a telecommunications bill, which could be the biggest jobs-creation bill passed in a decade," Lott said.

Aides to Dole and Gingrich refused to say whether the two had reached a workable agreement, but several Republican staff members and many industry lobbyists said they favored removing the television issue from the bill and addressing it in a separate piece of legislation.

The disputed provision would essentially give every existing television station a second channel to begin digital transmission services. The channel was originally envisioned for high-definition television, which offers wider and sharper pictures. But it can also be subdivided to provide as many as six simultaneous television programs or used to transmit computer data at high speed.

The provision is one part of a 200-page bill, most of which is written to knock down regulatory barriers that prevent local phone companies, long-distance carriers and cable television companies from attacking each other's markets.

After a House-Senate conference had agreed on a bill, rank-and-file House Republicans surprised their leaders by complaining that the negotiators had made too many concessions. Then, Dole began attacking the provision as a giveaway to broadcasters.

The complaints have subsided in recent weeks, and Gingrich has made it plain that he wants to pass the measure quickly. As late as Thursday, a Republican staff member said that the House was essentially ready but that lawmakers still had a "Dole problem."

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