WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate sent a stinging rebuke to federal communications regulators and the Bush administration Tuesday, voting 55-40 to overturn new media ownership rules that could put newspapers, TV and radio stations into the hands of fewer owners.
Twelve Republicans joined 43 Democrats in a resolution directing the Federal Communications Commission to rewrite its media ownership rules. The Senate Republican leadership opposed the measure.
Critics say those rules could lead to a wave of media mergers and ultimately stifle diversity and local viewpoints in news and entertainment.
President Bush’s senior advisers are recommending he veto the resolution if it reaches his desk, and Tuesday’s vote was short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
House leaders said they do not expect to act on the Senate’s resolution.
‘‘Nice exercise, Senate,’’ said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. ‘‘It is going nowhere. Dead on arrival.’’
But a bipartisan group of senators say they believe the FCC rules are so unpopular that House members will find a way around their leaders to strike down all or part of the FCC’s new rules.
‘‘The troops don’t always follow the leaders,’’ said Republican Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippian who used to serve as Senate majority leader.
Supporters of the unusual ‘‘legislative veto’’ of the regulations said there has been an overwhelming public backlash since the media ownership rules were approved in June. Consumers’ Union, the National Rifle Association, and the National Organization for Women are some of the groups opposing the rules.
‘‘I am deeply concerned that this order will reduce local news coverage,’’ said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. ‘‘We have to ensure the marketplace of ideas is not dominated by a few conglomerates at the expense of the views received by our citizens.’’
Sen. John Cornyn, RTexas, voted against the resolution. He said the argument about a diminishing number of media voices ‘‘didn’t hold water.’’
‘‘We’re talking about an industry that was originally owned by two or three networks,’’ Cornyn said. ‘‘We have four big networks now, and with the advent of cable television and the Internet, not to mention newspapers and other modes of communication, we have innumerable voices informing the public.’’
"Any prospect of this becoming a reality is minimal at best,’’ said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who led an effort to defeat the resolution. Though McCain said he was opposed to greater media consolidation, particularly in the radio industry, he said Congress should tackle the issue through the normal legislative process rather than using a device that would reverse the entire FCC rule-making effort. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., also voted against the resolution.
Some senators opposed the FCC’s rule allowing networks to own local TV stations reaching 45 percent of the nation, while others criticized the rules allowing individual companies to own thousands of radio stations, including most of the stations in a single market.
The FCC allowed dozens of existing ownership combinations to remain in place in 1975 when it adopted its rule barring cross-ownership of newspapers and television stations in the same market.
In the Valley, Gannett Co. owns The Arizona Republic, a daily newspaper, and KPNX-TV (Channel 12) in Phoenix. Regardless of the ruling’s outcome, Gannett can own both until 2006, when KPNX’s broadcasting licence expires.
After that, without the FCC proposed rule changes, the company might be forced to sell the TV station.
Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, said the Senate resolution ‘‘would bring no clarity to media regulation, only chaos.’’
Powell has argued for years that the agency was compelled to relax its ownership rules because of federal court orders. In 1996, Congress passed a law ordering the FCC to review its media ownership rules every two years. The law requires the agency to abolish any rules it cannot defend in the public interest, and Congress itself relaxed the radio ownership rules.
The five commissioners voted 3-2 on June 2 to relax a rule covering network ownership of local TV stations, increasing the cap on national audience reach to 45 percent from 35 percent. Fox and CBS already own more stations than would be allowed under the 35 percent cap.
In the same vote, the FCC relaxed its cross-ownership rule to allow newspaper-TV station combinations in all but the smallest metropolitan areas. The agency tightened its radio ownership rules.
The FCC left in place a ban on mergers among the four largest TV networks.
The FCC’s rules also would allow one company to own as many as three local TV stations in the nation’s largest markets, and as many as eight radio stations.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court blocked the FCC from
implementing its new rules while the court hears arguments about their merits. The case is expected to take several months before the appeals court reaches a decision.