Rules Committee to Consider DTV Bill Today

Hearing to be held this afternoon, House to vote as early as Wednesday

The House Rules Committee has slotted the DTV date-changing bill for consideration at 5 p.m. today (Feb. 3).

House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) has requested a closed rule-no amendments-and an hour of debate divided equally among the two sides.

"Naïve man, don't you know that gods don't participate in voting on the notions of mere human beings?," said an obviously unhappy Larry Neal, deputy Republican staff director, in response to a reporters question about Waxman's request for a closed rule. "Let us barefoot peasants simply adore the searing brilliance of the Democratic majority, and be blessed by their presence, and not annoy them with our so-called ‘ideas.'"

The bill, already approved unanimously in the Senate, moves the DTV transition date from Feb. 17 to June 12 and allows three more months to apply for DTV-to-analog converter box coupons. But the waiting list for those coupons, currently several million requests long, will not be freed up until the economic stimulus package passes since that bill contains the money to pay for them.

Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA) is expected to testify during the rules committee hearing, which establishes the time for floor debate on the bill and what, if any amendments, are allowed.

After the rules committee approves the outline for how the bill will be considered, the House will have an hour to debate the rule itself, after which there will be debate and a vote on the bill. Generally, a floor debate is not scheduled the same day that a bill comes out of the rules committee. That means the bill will be voted on Wednesday at the earliest-and likely the latest since time is of the essence-with Democrats expected to send it along to the president.

This will be the second vote for the DTV date-change bill. The first time was under expedited procedures that also prevented amendments and limited debate, but required a two thirds majority. The first bill failed to get two-thirds, but had a clear majority at 258 to 168, split primarily down party lines with a handful of each party voting with the other.

This time, it will only require a majority for passage, and the president has signaled he is ready to sign it. Not surprising since it was his transition team that called for moving the date after the coupon program ran up against an accounting problem that slowed distribution to a trickle.

Elsewhere on the DTV bill front, House Republicans Joe Barton (TX) and Cliff Stearns (FL), ranking members on the Energy & Commerce and Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittees, respectively, have given FCC acting Chairman Michael Copps until 3 p.m. this afternoon to tell them how many stations can make the switch early if Congress moves the DTV date to June 12. They are concerned that given potential interference with other stations and issues about power levels, very few stations will actually be able to move early even if they want to, including ones who would be making way for first responders to use the reclaimed analog TV spectrum for emergency communications.

A spokesman for Copps' office said they were working on the request and always tried to respond to Congress as promptly as possible.