Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., calls his bill to reallocate some spectrum, which passed the Senate Commerce Committee 21-4 Wednesday, his "top priority for the year." But his work on the bill, which faces an uncertain future on the Senate floor and then a collision with Republicans in the House, may be just beginning.
Rockefeller's Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act would give away a portion of the spectrum known as the D Block for public safety purposes, and take $10 billion in proceeds from an auction of other spectrum voluntarily relinquished by TV broadcasters to set up an interoperable network. But most Republicans, including the four who voted against the bill Wednesday, want the D block spectrum auctioned off, with the proceeds used to decrease the federal deficit. The GOP also is generally opposed to a government-run public safety network.
"This is a spending bill," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who was one of the four members to vote against the bill. "It gives $2.8 billion to a corporation funded by the government. We should allow private sector companies with a public mission to build out and make available a network. There can be no reasonable assumption that a quasi-government entity could maintain quality communications. Look at Amtrak and the Post Office."
From the get-go, Rockefeller knew bipartisan support was key to getting his bill passed. So, with the focus on public safety in there, he worked to associate it closely with the 10th anniversary of 9-11 (the number of the bill, for example, is S911). And over the past few months, Rockefeller hunkered down, working closely with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. It was practically a love fest during Wednesday's executive session.
"A great deal of the credit goes to Sen. Hutchison," Rockefeller said. "I stand in awe of Sen. Hutchison. I stand in awe of both of our bipartisanship. You are something to behold," he added at the conclusion of the hearing, while sitting next to a blushing Hutchison.
But despite the collegial atmosphere in committee and support from eight of the committee's 12 Republicans, it could be a lot more rough and tumble getting S911 to the floor and through the Senate.
"A large portion of the Republican members will have major problems with the bill," said one Senate aide.
One lobbyist told Adweek they expect holds to be placed on the bill by Republican senators like Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, who has made questioning government spending his top priority.
The other major hurdle, of course, is the House, where the GOP majority is likely to side with DeMint's reading of the legislation as a "spending bill."
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications & Technology, who will likely lead the House on a spectrum bill, is more likely to seek a "public-private partnership" for handling the D-Block.