February 1, 1996

Dole Frees Communications Bill for Vote


WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Dole agreed Wednesday to back away from his objections to a sweeping telecommunications bill, clearing the way for rapid passage in both the House and Senate.

After meeting Wednesday morning with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Dole agreed to let the bill go through in its current form in exchange for a pledge to return in separate legislation to the part of the bill he objects to.

He has loudly attacked as "corporate welfare" the provision that would earmark a valuable segment of the nation's airwaves for new digital television services.

Gingrich promptly acted to bring the telecommunications bill up for a vote in the House on Thursday.

Senate Republicans said they hoped to schedule a final vote this week, though they cautioned that could slip to next week.

Wednesday's breakthrough came after a perils-of-Pauline journey for the bill, which would overhaul laws governing telephones, cable television, broadcasting and the Internet.

Television broadcasters want to use the frequencies to upgrade their current service with offerings like high-definition television, but Dole and others have argued that the frequencies would bring the government tens of billions of dollars if they are auctioned to the highest bidders.

The result was much less than Dole had originally wanted, and Congressional aides said he was less than happy.

In the end, however, both Dole and Gingrich wanted to pass the huge bill and put and end to more than three years of tortuous debate and endless lobbying by huge media and communication companies.

"We have solved the Dole problem," said Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D. and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

House Republicans, who encountered a rebellion within their own ranks after negotiating a House-Senate conference agreement last month, said they were now poised for easy passage.

"Our guns are loaded and they're blazing away," said Rep. Jack Fields, R-Texas, and one of the bill's principal House authors.

Fields had in fact been one of those who argued that Republicans had made too many concessions to Senate Democrats on the conference committee.

Wednesday, however, Fields praised the bill effusively, even as he acknowledged that it did not go as far as he wanted in removing many regulations. "I always try to push the envelope as far as possible," he said Wednesday night. "But in a bill this complex, you have to make compromises."

But there could still be snags. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., lashed out Wednesday against a provision of the bill aimed at blocking "indecent" sexual material on the Internet.

Ms. Schroeder, along with other female lawmakers, said the provision would also prohibit the transmission of material about abortion.

Ms. Schroeder said the provision would expand an earlier law that was written primarily to restrict "dial-a-porn" telephone services. But that earlier law also contains a clause that would impose prison terms for people who traffic in material about drugs or other products that produce abortion.

If enacted, the telecommunications bill would overhaul the nation's 62-year-old communications laws and in time reshape the entire communications industry.

The bill's main purpose is to knock down regulatory barriers that currently prevent local telephone companies, long-distance carriers and cable television operators from attacking each other's markets.

It would also greatly relax regulations on the number of television and radio stations that a single company can own, though Democrats succeeded in moderating some of those provisions during the conference committee.

Despite vehement opposition from on-line computer services and many civil rights groups, the bill would impose heavy fines and prison terms on people who transmit "indecent" sexual material over the Internet or commercial on-line networks.

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