Spectrum rules stuck in holding pattern

Stakeholders in the year-long debate over spectrum legislation find themselves in a bit of a holding pattern while lawmakers try to figure out how to break a congressional logjam over how to extend a payroll-tax holiday.

House GOP leaders included a version of spectrum legislation approved earlier this month by the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee in legislation the House passed last week providing a one-year extension of the payroll-tax cut. But the package passed by the Senate on Saturday providing a two-month payroll-tax holiday did not include spectrum legislation. On Tuesday, House GOP leaders balked at calls to pass the Senate's payroll bill before leaving town for its holiday break, and instead say they want to negotiate with the Senate over the differences between the two bills.

The spectrum legislation seeks to free up more spectrum for wireless broadband technologies by enticing broadcasters to give up some of their airwaves in exchange for some of the money from auctioning that spectrum, while also producing funds for the Treasury. It also would provide spectrum and authorize funding to help public-safety officials build a national broadband network to improve communications at the scene of emergencies.

Public safety officials, House Democrats, and supporters of a Senate Commerce spectrum bill have concerns with several provisions in the House bill. The impasse over the payroll legislation may at the very least give lawmakers more time to work through some of the remaining differences between the House and Senate versions.

"Although we didn't get this done within today's agreement, I intend to push hard in the coming weeks to work out a suitable compromise with the House," Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in a statement on Saturday of the Senate's payroll tax bill. "Build-out of a public-safety communications network is in our national interest. We cannot afford further inaction."

Should lawmakers opt not to include spectrum legislation in any payroll-tax deal, supporters will go back to trying to find another must-pass bill to attach it to or try to move the measure through the regular legislative process.

"There's still an opportunity that if we have a conference [on the payroll-tax package] that could be one of the pay-fors," Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., vice chairman of the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, told National Journal on Tuesday. If lawmakers do not include spectrum legislation in a payroll-tax deal, Terry added that, "then we'll push it as a stand-alone" bill.

House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce staffers had been meeting up until last week on trying to work through some of the differences between the bills but those talks have stalled. Among the biggest issues separating the two sides is over the governance structure of the national broadband network. The Senate bill would create a nonprofit corporation to oversee the building and management of the network, while the House bill calls for an outside administrator to help oversee the process.

Public-safety officials have endorsed the Senate Commerce Committee's spectrum bill, which was approved in June. They have voiced concerns about the governance structure as well as other provisions in the House bill, most notably a requirement that they eventually give back "narrow-band" spectrum they now use for voice communications. In addition, tech companies are concerned about language in the House bill that could restrict the release of more unlicensed spectrum.

Still, House Republicans already gave in to a key demand from public-safety officials, congressional Democrats, and the White House to reallocate a swath of spectrum known as the D-block to public-safety officials for their broadband network.

"We're being very reflective about our success and progress in 2011," said Sean Kirkendall, a spokesman for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International. "We're looking to getting [the legislation] past the goal line."

Many of those involved in the debate have said it is not a question of whether Congress will pass spectrum legislation, but when. "To me it's an absolute mystery why we haven't agreed on one bill. It should be easy enough for us to do," Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said on Tuesday.

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