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Congress Looks to Rein in Networks

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Congressional negotiators last week decided to keep the biggest TV networks from getting larger, potentially setting the stage for a confrontation with the Bush administration, which has threatened a veto over the measure.

Administration officials lobbied to reverse the decision reached Wednesday by House and Senate lawmakers, who opted to retain a provision that would limit networks to stations reaching 35 percent of the country—down from the 45 percent set in June by the Federal Communications Commission. The 35 percent provision at press time was part of a large, must-pass spending bill for multiple Federal agencies, meaning a Bush veto would risk shutting down the government.

The White House showed no signs of backing off from its threat to veto any bill that rolls back the FCC decision. But on Capitol Hill, many were skeptical that President Bush's first veto would be to defend the growth of TV networks.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, Appropriations Committee chairman and a leading defender of the 35 percent limit, said he expected nothing more than "a verbal spanking" from the White House.

FCC critics were optimistic. "When Congress gets this done, it will be an enormous victory for consumers," said Gene Kimmelman, director of public policy for public interest group Consumers Union. "This … is just the first step in overturning the agency's entire [set of] media-ownership rules."