AT&T Awaits Lame-Duck Congress


Washington-At loggerheads with the White House, Congress last week postponed action on critical spending bills until after the Nov. 7 election, leaving the outcome of some communications-policy measures in limbo.

Although the House is technically still in session, hundreds of lawmakers nevertheless went home to campaign. The Senate, meanwhile, threw in the towel early last week, adjourning until Nov. 14, after negotiations with the White House on spending limits broke down.

Before the Senate's departure, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told reporters he failed to win support for a provision that would have changed how the Federal Communications Commission calculates ownership of cable-television systems, a break sought by AT&T Corp. to avoid substantial asset sales.

But because Congress has agreed to a post-election, lame-duck session, Stevens has plenty of opportunities to win support for his position in the weeks ahead.

"I fully expect a full-court press from AT&T and Sen. Stevens when they come back," said Gene Kimmelman, Washington office co-director of Consumers Union, a dogged opponent of AT&T's lobbying effort to ease the ownership rules.

AT&T faces a Dec. 15 deadline to announce whether it will sell a 25 percent interest in Time Warner Entertainment, sell Liberty Media Group and other programming interests, or divest 9.7 million of its cable subscribers. The company has until next May 19 to complete the asset sales.

Kimmelman said AT&T may not need legislation if Texas Gov. George Bush wins the election and installs a Republican FCC majority willing to either relax the rules voluntarily or extend AT&T's deadlines indefinitely.

Meanwhile, it was unclear late last week whether Clinton would veto a spending bill that includes a $1.25 billion loan guarantee program for providers of local-TV signals outside the top 40 markets. The measure also requires the FCC to test whether Northpoint Technology Ltd.'s terrestrial video and data service would interfere with direct-broadcast satellite frequencies.

The Congressional Budget Office said last week that the $1.25 billion loan provision would likely lead to defaults costing $200 million.

White House spokesman Stephen Boyd said Friday that Congress had yet to transmit the spending bill to Clinton as of the morning of Nov. 3.