Washington— The House Judiciary Committee last week overhauled Baby Bell broadband legislation in a manner hostile to the Bells, but then voted to send the bill to the floor with an unfavorable recommendation.
By voice vote, the House Judiciary Committee adopted the bill (HR 1542) with a recommendation that it not pass the House, though the panel urged approval of the Bell-hostile amendment if necessary.
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), would allow the the regional Bell operating companies to immediately offer data long-distance and generally bar competitors from leasing Bell high-speed network elements.
Tauzin and Dingell said the bill is necessary to promote Bell broadband deployment in rural areas and inner cities, while opponents claim it would allow the RBOCs to crush competitors and monopolize the broadband market.
In a move to address the concerns of Bell competitors, the Judiciary panel adopted by voice vote an amendment sponsored by chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that would bar the telcos from offering high-speed data service or hauling long-distance data traffic without permission from the U.S. Attorney General.
The clash between the two House committees must now be resolved by the House Rules Committee, traditionally controlled by the House Speaker.
"We are going to go the course. I put it in the Judiciary Committee because I think they have the right to do some work on it," Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said.
Bells and rivals both claimed victory after the Judiciary vote.
What happens next in the House was the subject of intense debate last week.
Julian Epstein, the judiciary committee's chief Democratic counsel, said the bill was so controversial that the House Republican leadership would be unwilling to engage the House in a divisive debate.
"I am skeptical whether this bill can get to the floor. The bill is dead in the Senate," Epstein said.
In the Senate, the Commerce Committee is now headed by Sen. Ernest (Fritz) Hollings (D-S.C.), a longtime foe of the Bells.
Hollings is holding a hearing June 19 on the state of local phone competition. AT&T chairman C. Michael Armstrong, who blasted Tauzin-Dingell last week in Chicago, is scheduled to testify.
Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson predicted the House would vote on the Tauzin-Dingell bill this year and dismissed speculation that Hastert would shield members from a floor battle. He also said Sensenbrenner's amendment would be stripped.
"All of this talk about members having to make tough vote is all bull. These guys are paid to make tough votes," Johnson said.
OPEN-ACCESS PLOT FOILED
As cable-industry leaders met in Chicago, two members of the Judiciary Committee were crafting plans to impose Internet open-access mandates on their broadband facilities.
But the plan quickly collapsed when Sensenbrenner ruled within minutes that the cable-access provision was not germane to the bill under consideration.
The proposal was the idea of Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who offered it as an amendment to HR 2120, the bill the panel ultimately rejected.
Under Goodlatte-Boucher, any entity that provides Internet backbone and high-speed data services would need attorney general approval to initiate or continue to provide those services.
The attorney general was also prohibited from approving an application if the "applicant is denying access, or is likely to deny access, to its high-speed data services to any person on the same terms and conditions as it makes such access available to itself or its affiliate."
Goodlatte said the amendment was about "the fairness of regulating phone companies while other technologies remain free of regulation."