BY ALICIA MUNDY An unlikely band of six Republicans stands poised to undo the new network ownership cap of 45%, voted by the Federal Communications Commission on June 2. A bipartisan bill, S-1046, sponsored by Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), would roll back the network cap to 35%. The bill will likely be voted out of the Senate Commerce Committee to the Senate floor on Thursday, July 19, unhampered by the committee’s chairman, John McCain (R-Ariz.) Every GOP waffler on that committee is now under the microscope, as lobbyists, FCC officials, reporters and smiling Democrats scrutinize their loyalty, deregulatory history, personal friendships, National Association of Broadcasters ties and actual telecom knowledge. The crew includes McCain, Stevens, Conrad Burns (Mont.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Trent Lott (Miss.). The first question on everyone’s lips is “Where is McCain coming from?” The answer: No one knows. As chairman, McCain could tie up this bill in committee. Instead, without supporting it, he is allowing it to move forward. Perhaps that’s because it has 29 cosponsors, including conservative Republicans Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), Wayne Allard (Colo.) and Jim Bunning (Ky.) . On June 3, McCain was quoted by Reuters saying he might offer legislation to contain media ownership. Few were more surprised by this news than GOP staffers, one of whom said McCain loyalists were “all confused.” McCain used to tell reporters that he was one of only two senators to vote against the Telecom Act of 1996 because it did not deregulate enough. In the last few years, that cant has migrated into rhetoric about the dangers of media consolidation, especially in radio and the cable industry. But he openly supported raising the cap in the past. Some analysts believe McCain thinks the bill will die in the Senate, so perhaps this way he keeps peace on his committee. But scary things have happened on the Senate floor before. Stevens is another enigma. Conservative and deregulatory, he is also from a state with strong local broadcasters, says an investment firm analyst who requested anonymity; he doesn’t really act in tandem a lot with McCain; and he is a longtime pal of Hollings, the last New Deal Democrat standing. When he announced their bill to lower the cap, it sent a strong signal that negative reaction to the FCC’s changes would not be brushed aside easily. Lott doesn’t like McCain, loves the National Association of Broadcasters and is a very old friend of NAB president Eddie Fritts. Snowe has always been a moderate Republican, independent and sometimes uncertain about the details of telecom measures. Burns is an old broadcaster himself, and might as well bear an NAB tattoo; but he can count. Hutchison isn’t as worried about the cap as she is about newspaper cross-ownership (she’s been the butt of Belo Corp. stories), an issue that also concerns Lott (who gets bad press from Mississippi papers). Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) would like the bill to include a provision reinstituting the ban on newspaper cross-ownership. However, Democrats thinking strategically are advising him to let them push a “clean” bill on the network cap, and not hamstring it with a second issue that could lose them GOP support. There’s a companion cap bill in the House by Republican Richard Burr (N.C.), a friend of NAB-er Jim Goodman of Capitol Broadcasting. He’s opposed by Commerce Chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Telecom Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich). But if the Senate bill gets a strong push in its committee, and traction for a good floor fight, there may be more hope for it in the House.

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