President Bush risks an embarrassing defeat over his support for big media if he makes good his aides' pledge to veto a congressional rollback of relaxed broadcast-ownership limits.
The prospect of that election-season loss, particularly on an issue that has recently gained the attention of many voters, has Washington observers wondering whether Bush is serious about taking on Capitol Hill.
Already there are a number of key issues that are strikingly similar to the elder Bush's losing bid to retain the Oval Office—war in Iraq and a struggling economy for instance.
Those are likely to overshadow the media debate in resonance with voters, but with approval ratings slipping, Bush wants to avoid a repeat of the upset his father suffered when Congress overrode his veto of cable rate regulation eleven years ago.
Will Bush listen?
"A veto would hand Democrats a huge campaign issue," said one Capitol Hill aide, whose boss voted to reinstate the 35% cap on one company's TV household reach.
That legislation would knock down the FCC's June 2 decision to lift the cap to 45%. Others in Congress want to go further and eliminate additional FCC rule changes by reinstating the ban on local broadcast/newspaper crossownership and previous limits on TV duopolies. White House aides have said they will urge the President to veto any reregulation, regardless of whether it is limited to the ownership caps or includes other reregulatory measures.
Will Bush follow their advice? Their threat issued by the Budget Office promises only that aides will recommend a veto, not that Bush will agree.
Already three Democratic candidates have threatened to make media concentration an issue—just as Clinton running mate then-Sen. Al Gore did by returning from the campaign trail to help override the elder Bush's cable rate veto.
"President Bush has a choice," former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean trumpeted from the campaign trail after the House approved an Appropriations bill containing the ownership cap rollback. "He can choose to reward his campaign contributors by vetoing this bill, or he can do his job and protect the best interests of ordinary people by signing it."
Dems speak out
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is co-sponsor of a separate "legislative veto" that will come to the Senate floor in September. Kerry also penned a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell in May opposing the pending June 2 vote.
Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) joined the chorus later in June when he told a Democratic Party dinner that Bush's GOP appointees to the FCC were just one more example of the President's "horrible appointments" to agency and judicial posts.
It's clear Bush would like to avoid handing Democrats an easy campaign issue.
His aides and GOP leaders are currently stumping House members for enough written commitments from one-third of members—enough to sustain a veto. Their hope is that with the necessary 147 votes in the bag, House and Senate negotiators will scratch the media ownership provisions from the funding bill rather than force his hand.
Powell stays cool
It's too early to predict whether they'll raise the necessary commitments. A spokesman for Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), lead organizer of the effort, said "90 and counting" pledges had been generated through Aug. 6. Opponents of the new rules took some solace that the stated number hadn't grown from Cannon's press release six days earlier.
At the FCC, Powell was taking the White House offer at face value last week, but insisted he had no inside track to the President's thinking. "That's between the President and Congress," he said. "He doesn't ask me about his plans on vetoing."
Privately, Powell aides are confident the White House staff can get Bush to deliver. "We have a very good relationship with the White House," one aide said.