FCC Nomination Tied to Katrina Billions

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Las Vegas -- The White House needs to seek an additional $4.1 billion in Hurricane Katrina cleanup funding before a Senate Democrat will discontinue blocking the nomination of Robert McDowell to serve on the Federal Communications Commission.

Congress has committed $60 billion-$100 billion to help the Gulf Coast recover from last summer's devastating storm, but Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is holding up about 20 nominations by President Bush, including McDowell’s, until the White House promises to fully fund the reconstruction of damaged levees in her state and across the region.

"When the president makes a formal request to Congress and actually asks Congress for what he already says in press conferences, the holds get lifted," Adam Sharp, Landrieu's communications director, told reporters here Monday at the National Association of Broadcasters convention. "It has nothing to do with telecom."

President Bush promised to provide the funding, but the White House has not agreed to back legislation that would approve the additional spending, Sharp contended.

"They have not made that commitment," he said. "What I really want to stress here is that we are not asking for anything beyond what the president has already said he wants to do."

In a somewhat secretive process, each senator may block presidential nominations without cause. Often it takes a supermajority -- 60 votes -- to overcome obstructionist maneuvers. Because the Senate has 55 Republicans, a handful of Democrats would be needed to allow McDowell to take his seat at the FCC over Landrieu's objections.

McDowell, a Washington telecommunications lawyer, was nominated in an effort to give Republicans a 3-2 majority at the FCC. The Senate Commerce Committee approved him in March shortly after a quick hearing. But McDowell's nomination has become a pawn in a post-Katrina funding dispute.

Since last March, the FCC has been evenly divided 2-2 between Republicans and Democrats, hindering chairman Kevin Martin's ability to advance an agenda and process media and telecommunications mergers.

As a result of the commission's political paralysis, the $16.7 billion acquisition of Adelphia Communications Corp. by Time Warner Inc. and Comcast Corp. has languished for 324 days (as of April 25), a period of time involving a cable merger that does not have a recent precedent.

In February, the Federal Trade Commission, where Republicans hold a one-vote majority, approved the Adelphia transaction without conditions.

A few weeks ago, Time Warner chairman and CEO Richard Parsons said he was hoping that a Republican majority would emerge at the FCC before the agency acted on the Adelphia deal. A split FCC would give Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein the leverage to attach conditions to the cable deal, which involves the sale of 5 million subscribers.

Adelphia merger opponents, including public-interest groups and DirecTV Inc., have asked the commission to ban Comcast and Time Warner from obtaining exclusive access to regional sports networks.

Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) recently sent the FCC a letter raising several programming-related concerns regarding the Adelphia transaction.

Sharp did not indicate whether the White House was attempting to reach a deal with Landrieu. "Our distinct hope is that we can lift these holds very soon, because we do want some certainty for the Gulf Coast," he said.

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