The full House passed the budget reconciliation bill 217-215 in the wee hours of Friday morning. House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) cast the last vote, but don't look for a final bill on a DTV hard date or converter box subsidy anytime soon.
Passing intact as part of that legislation was the Commerce Committee's DTV transition bill.
That bill sets a hard date of Dec. 31, 2008, for the cut-off of analog TV service and the return of spectrum for auction, bringing billions to the treasury--some say as much as $30 billion.
But before Uncle Sam gets his hands on that money, $990 million will be set aside for a converter box to let analog-only sets receive a DTV signal after analog is cut-off on that date. The bill also contains a number of other DTV-related items, including money for first responders, a consumer education campaign and TV set labeling, and provisions for allowing cable to convert an HDTV signal to standard DTV, and DTV to analog.
Now comes the hard work of reconciling that bill in conference with the already-passed Senate version, which sets aside $3 billion for a subsidy; establishes an April 7, 2009 hard date; and gives twice as much money to first responders (over a billion versus $500 million). But that is about all it does because Senate rules prevent legislating on appropriations bills.
The gulf between the two subsidies is philosophical as well as monetary.
The House version is a first-come, first-served plan that rewards the first people who get an application, apply to the government for the subsidy, then redeem the coupons for $40 toward a converter box (up to two coupons per household).
The subsidy will only cover the first 10 million or so households who need them. Some estimates put the number of analog-only households at over 20 million, including many older people and minorities who might not have access to online forms or be eager to have extended dealing with the government.
The Senate subsidy would cover all who need the box, simply sending everyone $40 coupons. Republicans see that plan as a welfare program, while Democrats frame the House versions as an attempt to save tax cuts by returning most of the billions from analog spectrum auctions for deficit reduction at the expense of minorities and poorer people who most need the DTV subsidy.
The Senate Commerce Committee plans to deal in a second bill with a number of the issues it had hoped to deal with in the first, including cable conversion of the DTV signal, set labeling, and perhaps mandatory cable carriage of a broadcasters digital multicast signals.
Since the conferenced bill must also meet the Byrd rule test for not legislating on appropriations bills, the House might have to knock out some of the provisions not directly related to a hard date and subsidy and deal with those in a second bill of its own.
Whatever the outcome, the conference negotiations are likely to stretch into 2006, if they even begin before the legislature returns from its winter break in January.