Monday's decision by the Federal Communications Commission marks the second time this year that the agency's five commissioners have ended a long and fierce debate with a split vote, underscoring the sometimes bitter atmosphere at the agency during the tenure of Chairman Michael K. Powell.
The 3 to 2 decision to end many of the ownership restrictions on media companies followed party lines, with Powell joined by his fellow Republicans, Kevin J. Martin and Kathleen Q. Abernathy. In February, however, Powell was outmaneuvered by Martin, who sided with the agency's two Democrats, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, on a key decision governing the future of the telecommunications industry.
Copps and Adelstein have accused Powell of being unwilling to compromise on the media ownership issue. But Powell said in a recent interview that the Democrats were the ones who refused to negotiate.
"It's remarkable. I'm the one perceived to be ideologically partisan, but that's exactly what I've seen from the other side," Powell said.
The split votes and acrimony have made more unpredictable the outcomes of several decisions to be made in the coming months.
Among the issues to be decided is a proposal that could lead to the agency throwing out rules that require telephone companies to open their high-speed Internet networks to rivals.
Powell has also signaled that he wants to revisit the regulatory regime now used to set the prices that local telephone companies charge competitors for access to their networks. If those regulations change significantly, it could lead to companies such as AT&T Corp. and MCI backing away from their aggressive efforts to compete for local phone customers.
The FCC also must establish new rules governing the size of cable companies. The agency's prior cable ownership cap, which banned media companies from owning cable systems covering more than 30 percent of the country, was thrown out by the courts. A similar court ruling on broadcast ownership played a key role in Powell's proposal to raise national ownership caps for broadcasters.
Under normal conditions, the betting money would be on Powell being able to move his deregulatory agenda forward on each of the issues. Powell served for three years as one of the two Republican members of the commission during the Clinton administration, and was elevated by President Bush to be chairman more than two years ago.
At an agency that has a history of resolving its debates before a big vote, the recent split decisions illustrate what sources say are differences that have become personal. They say relations between Powell and Martin, in particular, have not healed since February. Powell's relations with the two Democrats have grown even more acrimonious during the debate over media ownership rules, with little or no direct contact between Powell and his colleagues.
"It makes it more difficult for compromise to be reached and for the agency to be an effective regulatory body. It is a very divided group right now," said Blake Bath, a Washington-based analyst with Lehman Brothers.
Split votes can become tools for opponents who want to challenge a decision in court, according to Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a former Republican FCC commissioner. "A 3-2 vote provides the minority with the opportunity to write stinging dissents, which people can then use when they march into appeals court," he said.
But Furchtgott-Roth, who became known for his frequent opposition to the Democratic majority at the agency, said Powell should have tried to work with the two Democrats.
In particular, he was critical of Powell's decision not to grant the request from Copps and Adelstein to delay Monday's vote for one month. It is a long-standing tradition for the agency chairman to grant such requests by other commissioners, even when they are opposing him.
"I think the chairman would have been well advised to have given some accommodation to the Democratic commissioners on delaying the vote," said Furchtgott-Roth. "It's kind of a time-honored decision, it's really the norm." For his part, Powell has been critical of the Democrats for continuing to postpone a vote to hold more public hearings on the issue. In addition to a hearing attended by all five commissioners in Richmond, Copps and Adelstein held more than a dozen hearings in other cities, including Phoenix, Seattle and Los Angeles. Powell publicly derided the hearings as a "19th-century whistle-stop tour."
"They've made no alternate proposals that weren't made at the last minute, but there's been a seven-month fight about how many public hearings you go to," Powell said.
Staff writer Frank Ahrens contributed to this report.