The Obama White House last week closed in on its goal of postponing the Feb. 17 digital-television transition. But the new president still needs action, not just words, from Congress, where it's always easier to block a bill than to pass one.
Obama, sworn in as the 44th president last Tuesday, also has to worry that the DTV-delay debate doesn't gets lost in his much bigger effort to pass an $825 billion stimulus package to revive a prostrate economy.
“The DTV delay bill is probably a jump ball right now, with a slight edge to passing. The biggest hurdle is the tight timeframe, and right now the stimulus bills are sucking up most of the oxygen in Congress,” Stanford Group analyst Paul Gallant said.
Last Thursday, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) unveiled his second bill in a week that would establish June 12 as the mandatory analog TV deadline. But the new bill wouldn't stop hundreds of stations that prepared to transition on Feb. 17 from doing so then or at any other time before June 12.
Senate Commerce Committee ranking Republican member Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who initially opposed delay, negotiated a compromise bill with Rockefeller last week. “I am pleased that chairman Rockefeller worked with me to address many of the concerns with the early proposals,” Hutchison said. “Significant challenges remain, however, and I will continue working with my colleagues in Congress to ensure a smooth transition to digital television for all Americans.”
Rockefeller tried to pass his first bill on Jan. 16 but unnamed Senate Republicans blocked him from rushing the measure through the chamber under expedited procedures. That bill included a 115-day transition delay.
It wasn't clear that the Rockefeller-Hutchison bill has sufficient support to pass. Almost all controversial Senate legislation needs to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle before being debated.
Last Friday, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) introduced a bill that would retain Feb. 17 while providing $250 million to allow the Commerce Department to eliminate the waiting list for digital-to-analog converter-box coupons. The list has 2.5 million requests for $40 coupons.
“It is critical that Congress quickly get the coupon program back up and running and, as we come closer to the Feb. 17 transition date, we must consider all options to ensure that the transition goes smoothly,” Gregg said.
Last Friday, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, introduced a bill with Gregg's same $250 million figure. The House's stimulus package, approved by the Energy and Commerce Committee last Thursday, included $650 million for the coupon program.
The $1.34 billion coupon program, run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, isn't out of money. However, a budget law is preventing NTIA from mailing new coupons until old ones have expired in 90 days. About 300,000 expire each week.
“We already know that we will get much of the money back from expired coupons that people decided not to use,” said Barton. “Rep. [Edward] Markey [D-Mass.] and I had been working on this kind of approach since the first week of January. If our work had not been interrupted by the Obama transition team, legislation could have been through the House and the Senate by now.”
Obama and his staff for weeks have been nervous about the analog cutoff, fearful that millions of people have failed to prepare their old TVs to receive new digital pictures. Obama transition co-chair John Podesta called for a DTV delay on Jan. 8.
Last week, Nielsen Media Research said 6.5 million TV households were not ready for the Feb. 17 all-digital transition. About 1.3 million TV homes became digital-ready in just the past three weeks, Nielsen said.
In the Senate, Rockfeller said his bill, the DTV Delay Act, could come up for a vote next week on the Senate floor.
“Let me be clear. This legislation is not perfect. But it represents a turning point, a start,” he said.
Rockefeller also said he couldn't guarantee there would be only one delay if his bill became law.
“If we are able to make substantial progress on the administration of the transition, this should be the last delay we have to seek. Barring unforeseen emergencies, we should not have another delay,” he said.
Hutchison, however, said she understood that June 12 was the final deadline.
“Sen. Rockefeller's personal commitment to me to not seek another delay provides needed certainty to bring this transition to a conclusion,” she said.
Rockefeller began work on his bill a few weeks ago, reacting to incoming Obama administration concerns that poor, elderly and rural Americans would be disproportionately harmed by a Feb. 17 analog cutoff.
In his statement, Rockefeller said a delay was necessary because “it is no secret that the outgoing administration grossly mismanaged the digital television transition.”
Rockefeller's bill would also allow public-safety organizations to use spectrum that had been vacated by analog TV stations prior to June 12.
That provision was an effort to address concerns raised by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said he could support a 115-day delay if police, fire and emergency crews could access old analog TV spectrum as early as Feb. 18.
Today, analog TV stations mostly occupy channels 2 to 69; digital stations need just channels 2-51. Channels 52 to 59 have been auctioned to wireless broadband companies and 24 MHz has been reserved for public safety. But new users are in limbo until analog TV stations vacate.
In response to consumer complaints, Rockefeller's bill would allow the NTIA to reissue DTV converter box coupons to households that failed to use their original ones before the 90-day expiration period.
Rockefeller argued that senators who blocked his new bill would need to answer to an outraged public.
“I warn those who would stand in the way, who dismiss my sense of urgency, that should they force us to keep to our current course, it is the American public who will bear the brunt of their opposition,” Rockefeller said.