Bucking the Obama administration, House Republicans on Wednesday defeated a bill to postpone the upcoming transition from analog to digital television broadcasting to June 12 — leaving an estimated 6.5 million U.S. households unprepared for the currently scheduled Feb. 17 switchover.
But the battle over a delay may not be over, with some predicting the House will take up the measure again next week.
Wednesday's 258-168 House vote failed to clear the two-thirds threshold needed for passage in a victory for GOP members, who warn that postponing the transition by four months would confuse consumers.
House Republicans say a delay also would burden wireless companies and public safety agencies waiting for the spectrum that will be freed up by the switch, and create added costs for television stations that would have to continue broadcasting both analog and digital signals for four more months.
The defeat is a setback for President Barack Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who maintain that the Bush administration bungled efforts to ensure that all consumers — particularly poor, rural and low-income Americans — will be ready for next month's analog shut-off. The Obama administration had no immediate comment on the House vote.
Despite Wednesday's setback, House Democrats are not out of options.
Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal policy at the Consumers Union, which has been lobbying for a delay, said he hopes the House will bring the bill up again for a regular floor vote, which would only require majority support to pass. Wednesday's vote took place under a special procedure that required two-thirds support for passage.
House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said he is working with the Obama administration and congressional leaders to explore all available options.
"A clear majority in Congress supports postponing the transition and providing assistance to the millions of households that are unprepared," Waxman said in a statement.
Wednesday's House vote came two days after the Senate unanimously passed the bill, sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill again — possibly as early as Wednesday night — to incorporate minor changes in the House version so that it can go directly to the White House for President Obama's signature if it clears the House next week.
Congress in 2005 required broadcasters to switch from analog to digital signals, which are more efficient, to free up valuable chunks of wireless spectrum to be used for commercial services and interoperable emergency-response networks.
The Nielsen Co. estimates more than 6.5 million U.S. households that rely on analog television sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast signals still are not prepared for the planned transition.
Still, Jonathan Collegio, vice president for the digital television transition at the National Association of Broadcasters, argues the Nielsen estimate may overstate the number of viewers who are not ready. He noted that the numbers exclude consumers who have already purchased a converter box but not yet installed it, as well as those who have requested coupons but not yet received them.
What's more, consumers who subscribe to cable or satellite TV service or who own a TV with a digital tuner will not lose reception.
Speaking on the House floor late Tuesday, Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Commerce Committee, insisted a postponement is not necessary.
"We could do nothing worse than to delay this transition date," Barton said in a statement Wednesday. "The bill is a solution looking for a problem that exists mostly in the mind of the Obama administration."
Barton led the push to scuttle the bill, which passed the Senate on Monday night after lawmakers in that chamber struck a bipartisan compromise. Senate Democrats won over Republican support by allowing broadcast stations to make the switch from analog to digital signals sooner than the June deadline if they choose and permitting public safety agencies to take over vacant spectrum promised to them as soon as it becomes available.
But those concessions did not placate most Republicans in the House. Only 22 Republicans voted for the bill, while 155 voted against it. Among House Democrats, 236 voted for the bill and just 13 voted against it.
The Obama administration called for the transition date to be postponed after the Commerce Department early this month hit a $1.34 billion funding limit for coupons to subsidize digital TV converter boxes for consumers. The coupon program allows consumers to request up to two $40 vouchers per household to help pay for the boxes, which translate digital signals back into analog ones for older TVs. The boxes generally cost between $40 and $80 each and can be purchased without a coupon.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department administering the program, is now sending out new coupons only as older, unredeemed ones reach a 90-day expiration date and free up more money. The NTIA had more than 3.2 million coupon requests on a waiting list as of Wednesday and those people will not receive their coupons before Feb. 17.
Barton, for one, is pushing legislation to fix the coupon program without delaying next month's transition.
Yet Rockefeller said a delay is the only way to ensure that millions of Americans don't see their television screens go dark next month.
"The outgoing Bush administration grossly mismanaged the digital television transition and consumers are confused, households are not prepared, and the coupon program for converter boxes is broken," Rockefeller said in a statement after the House vote.
The National Association of Broadcasters, which threw its support behind Rockefeller's bill this week, declined to comment on Wednesday's vote.
Among the big broadcast networks, The Walt Disney Co.'s ABC said it supports a delay, while CBS Corp. said it is "open to any plan that makes the digital transition easier for our viewers." News Corp.'s Fox Network had no comment Wednesday, although it has previously said it "supports any efforts to ensure that the transition to digital television is a success."
Business Writer Ryan Nakashima in Los Angeles contributed to this report.