Cable bill founders in Senate Legislation would regulate prices


WASHINGTON -- Legislation to regulate cable television prices was set back and probably killed yesterday when objections by three senators forced supporters of the bill to withdraw it from consideration on the Senate floor.

The action was a big blow to consumer groups and aspiring rivals of the cable industry, which had been counting on the measure to help limit price increases for cable service and to foster increased competition. The price of basic cable service has doubled in many cities in the last several years, leading to many complaints from customers.

The effort to block the bill was led by Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., who said on the Senate floor that he objected to parts of the bill and insisted that his objections be resolved before formal consideration began. The Senate rule under which the bill was to have been considered requires that debate on a bill cannot proceed without unanimous consent.

Mr. Wirth, whose home state is the also headquarters of the nation's largest cable system operator, Tele-Communications Inc. of Denver, was joined by Bob Packwood, R-Ore., and Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo.

The move was widely viewed by the bill's backers as a parliamentary tactic to block passage in this session of Congress, which adjourns next month. Given the volume of legislation that lawmakers must address in the remaining days of the session, congressional aides and lobbyists generally agreed that the cable bill was probably dead. Supporters said it would have to be reintroduced in the next Congress.

One Senate aide said Mr. Wirth probably was motivated by the fact that he did not have the votes to press for changes he wanted, including a relaxation of a provision that would require producers of cable programming to sell their material to companies that want to compete against local cable operators.

That provision is viewed by the cable industry as the most objectionable feature of the bill.

Supporters of the bill were angry. Gene Kimmelman, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, said, "It looks pretty dead. We're very disappointed. Consumers got held hostage to political posturing, and that was very unfortunate."

Representatives of the cable industry reacted more cautiously, saying they were still willing to work out a compromise.

John Wolfe, a spokesman for the National Cable Television Association, said, "Today's debate makes clear there are a number of senators with serious concerns, particularly about program exclusivity."

That is the provision requiring producers of cable programming to sell their material to companies that want to compete against local operators.

The measure was considered essential by the companies that want to compete against local cable operators and force prices down. The aspiring competitors have long argued that they cannot buy the most popular programs that they need to attract consumers, because the programmers are often partly owned by the large cable operators.

Mr. Wolfe added that his association remained willing to participate in negotiations for "a reasonable cable bill." Among other things, that would include a less stringent requirement to sell programming to cable competitors, coupled with limited price regulation.

The cable industry had largely acquiesced to the provisions imposing modest rate regulation.

Although the legislation was in many ways modest, it was one of the first significant attempts to impose any form of price control in recent years. The Bush administration had threatened to veto the measure, arguing that a more appropriate solution to complaints about the cable industry would be to permit competition by local telephone companies, which are currently prohibited from providing cable television service.

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