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Telecom issues await fate in Congress

The stalemated election has everyone guessing as to whether the House and Senate will address some pending telecommunications issues.

WASHINGTON--The House and Senate will reconvene after the Thanksgiving holiday to wrap up some critical spending bills, but the stalemated election has everyone guessing as to whether they'll address some pending telecommunications issues.

This lame-duck session--which will include defeated members such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bill Roth, R-Del.--must address some spending bills still not passed and signed by the president, including money for agencies critical to the high-tech community such as the Commerce Department and the Federal Communications Commission.

The question before congressional leaders is: Do they tackle thorny issues such as wireless airwaves auctions and cable broadband ownership, or do they just take care of the mandatory spending and leave the big issues to the next Congress, which takes office in January?

"The nation as a whole would be better off" with a simple spending measure, or continuing resolution, that would maintain agency spending at current levels until the next Congress, Free Congress Foundation president Paul Weyrich said in a speech Tuesday.

Alternatively, Congress could take up some unresolved issues and pass them on spending bills as riders, or pieces of legislation attached to spending bills that aren't necessarily related. That often is an easier way to pass controversial legislation, but it can also lead to protracted debate.

Weyrich said that a continuing spending resolution was superior to trying to pass the spending bills separately because riders could be attached to them. That could draw out the session and lead to more partisan tension.

The Senate next year will either be split evenly between the major parties or have a one-seat Republican advantage, pending the final count in Washington state between Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and Democratic challenger and former RealNetworks executive Maria Cantwell. Throughout the count Gorton has maintained a narrow lead. With two seats still being resolved in the House, the Republicans next year would have a narrow nine-seat lead in that 435-seat body.

Traditionally in lame-duck sessions after the national election, the victorious party may try to use that mandate to pass bills in the last days of the remaining Congress before the new one is sworn in, or the defeated party may try to take one last advantage of the numbers they have in Congress to push its agenda. No such mandate or shift emerged in the November elections in Congress, suggesting neither party has motive to push legislation now.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has made it a personal crusade to oppose most riders and unrelated spending items included in these bills. He has written congressional leaders opposing a rider that would help NextWave Telecom get its wireless licenses back from the FCC that it lost as a result of defaulting on payments. NextWave is continues to lobby for the rider.

Although Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., last month said a case could be made for postponing the FCC's Dec. 12 re-auction of the licenses until NextWave's court appeals are exhausted, he said when the congressional schedule was set two weeks ago that he hoped for a quick session, which would mean few if any riders.

Another rider still alive in this Congress is one that would increase the number of cable systems one company could own. While the language doesn't name any particular company, only AT&T is over this federal cap, so it would be the only company to benefit from a change. It's not surprising then that Jim Cicconi, AT&T's general counsel, has been leading the lobbying effort for this provision.

With a dwindling number of days left for the existing Congress to meet, each passing day means less likelihood that any riders, telecom or other, will pass. Any legislation that doesn't become law during this lame-duck session will be lost, and the bill's sponsors will have to start the process all over again next year with the new Congress.