Gramm Vows to See Loan Bill Through

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Washington-House and Senate leaders continued to meet last week to revive a bill that would provide cheap, government-backed loans to local-TV providers in markets where such service is scarce or unavailable.

"It's going to become law," predicted Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas). Gramm is sponsor of a measure (S. 2097) earmarking $1.25 billion in federal loan guarantees for satellite carriers, which passed the Senate earlier this year.

The Senate Banking Committee chairman said he'd been trying to form a conference committee to iron out differences with the House, but claimed Democrats had blocked his effort. The legislation had been dormant for months after passing both chambers with strong bipartisan support.

Gramm is concerned about some provisions in the House bill (H.R. 3615), including one that excludes the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from the three-member panel that would approve loans.

"They have three people on the board and we have three people, but they are not the same people," Gramm said. "So what I think we will do is put four people on the board."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he's been trying to push the bill over the finish line, but warned that his effort could bog down if other lawmakers tack on extraneous provisions.

"We've been working on it. We had a meeting about it last week," McCain said. "The problem is, I think there may be an agreement but they are trying to add other stuff on to it." McCain did not say who "they" were.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), sponsor of the House bill that would also provide $1.25 billion in loan guarantees, declined comment, and said negotiations were at a delicate stage.

Some proponents of the legislation acknowledge their aim is to help satellite carriers provide local broadcast-television signals in small and midsize markets. Neither DirecTV Inc. nor EchoStar Communications Corp. intend to serve those areas due to channel capacity constraints and regulatory mandates-particularly DBS must-carry, which starts to kick in next year.

Though Gramm's bill attempts to maintain neutrality between distribution technologies, the House bill contains provisions that would bar cable operators from using loan monies for upgrades within their current franchise areas.

The Congressional Budget Office has warned that both bills would cost taxpayers millions of dollars, if loans were to default. That's because recipients would provide a service-local broadcast TV-that's already available in all but 3 million households via cable or off-air antenna.

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