Bid to delay DTV switch runs aground in the House

by David Hatch, National Journal

The House Energy and Commerce Committee abruptly scrapped a scheduled vote Wednesday on legislation aimed at postponing the nation's shift to digital television signals from Feb. 17 to June 12, a delay strongly opposed by panel Republicans.

The bill was drafted last week by Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman. It is a part of an 11th-hour push by Democrats in both chambers and the Obama administration to delay the problematic switchover to give some citizens more time to prepare.

With TV stations scheduled to end their analog transmissions in 26 days, Congress appears deadlocked over how to proceed, with Republicans calling for quick fixes to keep the legally mandated effective date and Democrats endorsing a four-month extension.

"The transition to digital television is not going well," Waxman said in a statement issued after the vote was bumped. "Without a short, one-time extension, millions of households will lose all television reception," he said.

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Reid, acting on behalf of Senate Commerce Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, tried to "hotline" legislation setting a June 12 effective date to gauge if it could pass by unanimous consent. But he quickly withdrew the bill from floor consideration when it was clear Republicans would object.

A Rockefeller spokesman said the chairman is working with the minority side to address its concerns and was hopeful Reid would try this week.

Waxman said in his statement that he canceled the markup and vote on his bill "to give the committee more time to assess the implications of the Senate action."

Outside the committee room after Waxman's announcement, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., voiced the GOP's concerns about postponing the demise of analog TV broadcasts. "I think a lot of us were shocked that this all came out of the blue," he said of legislative efforts to change the date.

Shimkus said Republicans want Congress to act immediately to clear a growing backlog of requests for government-issued coupons that would help consumers offset most of the cost of digital converter boxes that will keep older TV sets functioning in the digital era. He said they would support putting more federal dollars into the coupon program.

The Commerce Department has slowed processing of coupons to a crawl due to a funding shortfall. It reported having a waiting list of more than 2.5 million vouchers as of Wednesday.

Waxman's bill contains several provisions aimed at addressing the program's woes, though House Democrats want funding for the coupon program to be part of President Obama's economic stimulus package, which is not expected to be enacted until mid-February.

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