WASHINGTON - The House overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday that would prevent media giants from buying up more television stations.
The 400-21 vote not only represented a rebuke of the Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission, but it also set up a possible veto confrontation with President Bush if the Senate follows suit.
Consumer groups were delighted - and even somewhat amazed - that so many House Republicans ignored their leadership and voted to roll back new FCC rules that would have raised the limit on national ownership of television stations.
The action followed a huge campaign by voters who said they feared growing media power. Groups as diverse as the National Organization for Women and the Christian Coalition had flooded Washington with e-mails, letters and phone calls, demanding that regulators continue to restrain media ownership.
"We are thrilled that Americans made their views known on this," said Liz Rose, a spokeswoman for Consumers Union.
But FCC Chairman Michael Powell issued a defiant statement, defending his agency's 3-2 vote last month to allow companies to own television stations that can reach 45 percent of the national audience.
The current limit is 35 percent.
Powell, along with two other Republican commissioners, said the lower limit had become obsolete in an age of cable television, satellite broadcasts, the Internet and other technologies.
"We are confident in our decision," Powell said. "We created enforceable rules that reflect the realities of today's media marketplace."
Powell has the support of the Bush administration. On Tuesday, the White House budget office issued a statement saying the new rules "more accurately reflect the changing media landscape ... while still guarding against undue concentration in the marketplace." It threatened a presidential veto if Congress attempts to thwart the FCC.
The strong Republican support for the new rules did not faze a bipartisan group of House members that said it feared a loss of diversity of programming and opinions. On Tuesday, it succeeded in adding an ownership limit to a routine bill that provides funding for the departments of Commerce, State and Justice next year.
Having lost that key vote, House leaders did not stand in the way of the spending bill.
All eight members of the Maryland delegation - six Democrats and two Republicans - voted to pass the bill.
The next act in the political drama will come in September, when the Senate returns from summer recess and will have to approve its version of the Commerce, State and Justice spending bill.
The legislation then moves to a conference committee, where House and Senate negotiators can iron out differences between the two chambers' bills.
At that point, House Republican leaders will make their move, said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican whose Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over FCC matters.
"We're convinced that, given the possibility of a presidential veto, the media ownership provision will be stripped out of the bill in conference," Johnson said.
But opponents of the new rules say House Republican leaders shouldn't be so sure of themselves. They point out that the Senate Commerce Committee has already approved a bill returning the TV-ownership limit to 35 percent and undoing an FCC decision making it easier for media companies to own newspapers and television stations in the same city.
One of the co-sponsors of that bill, Sen. Ted Stevens, is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which handles spending bills. That means the Alaska Republican will be deeply involved in the conference committee and may fight hard to get his way on media issues.
If the scaled-back limit does survive the conference process, then Bush would have to veto a vital spending bill to kill it. Politically, that may be difficult for him to do.
If Bush were to back down from his threat of a veto, Capitol Hill insiders say it could spur Powell to resign.
The two companies that have the most riding on the outcome of this political battle are Viacom Inc., which owns the CBS and UPN networks; and News Corp., owner of Fox. Because of mergers and acquisitions, those companies already exceed the 35 percent limit, so they would have to shrink rather than grow.
Other media giants that are likely to be affected include Walt Disney Co., AOL Time Warner Inc., Gannett Co. Inc., Media General Inc. and Tribune Co., which owns The Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV in Los Angeles.
The companies that want to preserve TV-ownership limits include smaller broadcasters that feared being taken over.