The Senate Monday night approved unanimously a compromise bill (S.328) that would move the DTV transition date from Feb. 17 to June 12, but it must now be reconciled with a House version of the bill, and quickly, point out backers of the legislation.
Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and the bill's co-sponsor, sought a similar vote on his original bill, which would simply have moved the date from Feb. 17 to June 12. That bill was blocked by at least one Republican, which is all it takes.
Rockefeller then teamed with ranking Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison on a compromise bill that dealt with other issues, including unclogging the DTV-to-analog converter box backlog and access to reclaimed analog TV spectrum by industry and first responders. Most importantly, at least in terms of getting Republican support, the bill is revenue-neutral, meaning the cost of making the move will be underwritten by future FCC spectrum auctions.
It was that bill that made it past the Republican gauntlet.
“Delaying the upcoming DTV switch is the right thing to do,” said Rockefeller in a statement. “I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition at this time. The Senate acted responsibly to give the Obama Administration time to attempt to bring order to a mismanaged process. I want to thank Senator Hutchison for her leadership in this effort. I urge our colleagues in the House to pass this bill and I know Chairman Waxman is working on it.”
“This is a big step towards ensuring that consumers can adequately prepare for the DTV transition,” said another of the bill’s backers, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has long expressed concerns about the high percentage of over-the-air households in her state. “In Minnesota, more than 21 percent of our households depend exclusively on over-the-air broadcast TV.” she said. “Unless we get this right, millions could be without television on February 18 – the day after the transition.
The House is preparing Tuesday to mark up its own, similar, bill, but could conceivably engage in a game of legislative ping-pong with the Senate version that would preclude having to conference to reconcile the two. The bills are "virtually alike," says one Rockefeller aide. "The House bill actually contains funding number which we don't have in our bill." He said they may have to conference the bill, but it could also be a case of where "they amend it and pass it back over here and we amend it and send it back over there until we have a final bill."
The Obama administration three weeks ago asked Congress to delay the transition date, prompted primarily by a slow-down in converter-box coupon distribution due to the combination of a funding ceiling and an accounting problem that prevented more coupons from being sent out before expired ones were redeemed.