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House panel weakens cable bill to speed vote


WASHINGTON -- Deciding that it would be smarter to run and fight again some other day, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 31-12 yesterday in favor of a bill that would impose tough new rate regulations on most cable television systems.

But it is a much weaker bill than a measure passed by the Senate in January.

The thrust-and-parry strategy marked an attempt by the panel's chairman, Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., to sidestep the deadlocks and jurisdictional squabbles that have stalled House action on the bill for months.

The upshot is a measure that would regulate prices but does not include the two provisions, including one intended to increase competition, that the industry most vehemently opposed.

Supporters had said the provisions were the bill's most important features, one for the public interest and the other for political purposes.

Supporters of the bill have vowed to put the provisions back when the measure reaches the House floor or in House-Senate conference committee, where they believe they have a better chance of success.

"I want to win this thing in the long run," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Democrat who supports a stronger bill. "What we're doing is drawing the fight to a better field on a better day."

The new bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to set maximum rates for a basic tier of cable television service and allow it to roll back prices for premium services, like those that include Home Box Office or the Disney channel, if the prices are deemed "unreasonable."

But it eliminated a provision that was intended to promote greater competition for cable systems.

That provision would have required big cable companies that also produce popular programming to license their shows to such potential rivals as companies that transmit programming by satellite.

The new substitute also eliminated a provision that had been insertedto attract political support from the television networks and over-the-air television broadcasters.

That measure would have forced local cable systems to pay royalties to television stations for the right to retransmit their signals. Under current law, cable systems have an automatic license to carry over-the-air television signals without payment.

The partial retreat stems in part from Mr. Dingell's fear that the two provisions would make an overall cable bill much harder to pass.

Mr. Dingell has been embroiled in an increasingly bitter turf battle with the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jack Brooks of Texas, who is determined to change the provision that benefits broadcasters.

The provision affecting competition has come under attack from many Democrats.

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