TERENCE SMITH: On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission, in a controversial and bitterly partisan decision, moved to loosen rules governing media ownership.
FCC CHAIRMAN MICHAEL POWELL: Those commissioners voting in favor of the item signify by saying aye.
FCC COMMISSIONER: Aye.
TERENCE SMITH: With that three to two vote the issue seemed to be all over but the shouting.
But the shouting -- and letter-writing, and e-mailing -- from citizens and a broad array of public interest groups spanning the political spectrum have helped turn the tide against the FCC decision, in the process making a seemingly obscure regulatory issue into a political hot potato.
TERENCE SMITH: A series of legislative and legal roadblocks has arisen over the summer, placing the implementation of the new rules in doubt.
Specifically, the new rules state that in the largest cities, one company may own up to three television stations; nationally, a company and can own stations that reach 45 percent of U.S. households, up from 35 percent; one company can own both a newspaper and a broadcast outlet in the same city, ending the rule against cross-ownership in all but the smallest markets.
CONGRESS SPOKESPERSON: On this vote, the ayes are 55, the nays are 40.
TERENCE SMITH: Today the Senate passed a resolution of disapproval of the FCC decision, a rarely used parliamentary maneuver. Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, introduced the measure, which would send the entire ruling back to the commission for reconsideration.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: The broadcast ownership rules, if left in place by the FCC, would result in fewer and fewer companies and people determining what the American people see, hear and read. And I don't think that's healthy.
TERENCE SMITH: Nevada Republican Senator John Ensign is a vocal proponent of the FCC ruling.
SEN. JOHN ENSIGN: As long as people have the choices of where they view the market will determine where they get their information based on people choosing which stations that they choose to watch. That seems to me to be the American way.
TERENCE SMITH: The resolution now must be approved in the House, where it faces a tough road, and signed by the president, a supporter of the FCC plan.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan raised again the possibility of a veto.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: The vote appears to show that there would not be enough votes there to overturn a possible veto.
REPORTER: You said a possible veto. Is the veto threat still on for that...
SCOTT McCLELLAN: That's in the statement of administration policy. That is in there.
TERENCE SMITH: The Senate is also waiting to consider Appropriations and Commerce Committee measures that would block portions of the FCC ruling.
HOUSE FLOOR COUNT: The yeas are 400. The nays are 21.
TERENCE SMITH: The House, in a hugely lopsided vote in July, passed the appropriations bill, which funds the Commerce, Justice, and State departments. A provision in that bill would block implementation of the part of the FCC ruling that increased television station ownership caps.
The congressional actions were a resounding rebuke of FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
TERENCE SMITH: The newfound drive to overturn the FCC action sets up another potential showdown with the White House, which has threatened to veto the appropriations bill as well. The drive to reverse the FCC decision has made for some extraordinary alliances on Capitol Hill between congressmen, senators and interest groups who do not ordinarily see eye to eye. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle pointed up the unusual assembly of opponents.
SEN. THOMAS DASCHLE: The list of organizations is strangest list of bedfellows you'll ever see. Opponents include Walter Cronkite, William Safire, the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Organization for Women, Senator Jesse Helms.
TERENCE SMITH: Also on that list: Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott, a self-professed advocate of deregulation on many other matters.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I have learned that theoretically deregulation is good, but it is not always the right way to go.
And sometimes you have to back up and say, "Wait a minute here; is this affecting people's rights, people's access, people's constitutional rights, freedom of the press?" Free speech.
TERENCE SMITH: For his part, Chairman Powell has spent the latter half of the summer defending the rules in television appearances and in op-ed articles.
He responded to today's Senate action with a statement, saying in part: "This resolution, if passed by the House and signed by the president would only muddy the regulatory waters."
Amidst the public and congressional outcry, Powell announced at a recent press conference the formation of a task force to review the local obligations of media companies, something his critics say should have been done before the rules were passed.
MICHAEL POWELL: We don't concern ourselves with the critics. We concern ourselves on trying to be responsive to the public. And clearly, we've heard concerns expressed by the public that I think are not best addressed by the ownership rules that were recently promulgated, but are better addressed more openly and directly though the kinds of traditional rules focused on localism that this task force will look at.
TERENCE SMITH: But the task force will have to wait.
On September 3, a three-judge panel of the third circuit court of appeals in Philadelphia blocked the entire FCC ruling from taking effect the day before its official implementation. So with the FCC decision stymied in the courts and on Capitol Hill, Michael Powell's push to realign the media landscape remains in limbo.