Federal Communications Commission Republican Robert McDowell is permitted to vote to help the agency complete action on AT&T's $81 billion merger with BellSouth, according to a ruling released Friday by FCC general counsel Sam Feder.
McDowell issued a statement indicating that he needed to study Feder's analysis of federal conflict-of-interest rules before announcing his next move.
"In the meantime, I strongly urge the participating parties and my four colleagues to resolve their differences in the same amicable and unified manner they did in the similar merger between SBC [Communications] and AT&T just last year," McDowell said.
According to McDowell's office, he has been legally barred from participating until June 1 because his former employer -- a trade group for small telecommunications providers called Comptel -- is opposing the deal and demanding conditions.
McDowell's absence has left four voting members -- two Republicans and two Democrats -- who have failed to reach a consensus on a host of issues, including Internet-nondiscrimination policies.
Feder's opinion came one week after FCC chairman Kevin Martin -- a Republican who appointed Feder -- effectively asked whether McDowell could be freed now to vote on the merger.
Key Capitol Hill Democrats, reacting to Martin's move to break the partisan deadlock, have indicated that McDowell should remain on the sidelines.
"I am curious why persons other than [McDowell] himself sought this action, and I am curious about both the authority for and the wisdom of the FCC general counsel taking this action," incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) said.
Feder's ruling does not force McDowell to vote.
"If you feel appearance concerns outweigh the government's interest here or you have any other reason to abstain from participating, you are free to do so," Feder explained in an eight-page letter.