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He gets no respect. Think of Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) as the Rodney Dangerfield of the U.S. Senate. It's easy to see why: Despite winning a Rhodes Scholarship and earning a Harvard law degree (though twice failing the South Dakota bar exam), he's prone to bloopers. In his current crusade to sell off public TV, for instance, he has claimed that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting spends 75% of its budget on overhead. The real figure is 4.5%. His South Dakotan colleague in the Senate, Democrat Thomas A. Daschle, once sniped about Pressler: "A Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste."
Time to cut the comedy. As the new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Pressler, 52, is now one of the most important people in Congress. Just ask the U.S. communications giants: In the second half of 1994, outfits from AT&T to HBO anted up $475,859 for his 1996 election war chest. The reason: Pressler is in charge of shepherding the overhaul of the 60-year-old telecommunications law that limits competition in the converging telecom, entertainment, and information industries. The changes he will oversee, says former GOP Senator Howard H. Baker Jr., who is now the long-distance industry's head lobbyist, "will affect more people and more dollars than almost anything else you can perceive of for this Congress."
The Senate looks to be the key battleground for shaping deregulation. Last year's proposal sailed through the House before getting derailed in a highly partisan Senate. This year, House telecom subcommittee Chairman Jack Fields (R-Tex.) is hammering out a bipartisan bill, which he expects to have ready by March. But the Senate remains contentious. Partisan bickering already is breaking out. And there have been sharp disagreements even within the Republican Party over when local phone companies should be allowed into long-distance calling and over how much rate relief cable-TV operators should receive.
KILLER CHESS. After a month of negotiations with fractious colleagues, Pressler unveiled a GOP measure on Feb. 1 that would let local calling companies enter the long-distance market three years after its passage. Democrats countered with a much more restrictive version on Feb. 15. Now comes the horse trading. And telecom companies lack confidence in Pressler's ability to facilitate matters. He "makes Quayle look like Kissinger," carps an industry executive who has spoken to Pressler at length.
Pressler has no illusions about the difficulty of getting the Senate to agree. "It's like playing a game of chess with several players and any one of them can checkmate at any point," he says. At least he has been able to bring the warring GOP factions together. One camp, consisting of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Senators Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), favors immediately letting the Bells enter the long-distance business. Another, including Pressler and Senators Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), wants to restrain the Bells until their monopolies end so that they can't unfairly subsidize competitive ventures.
ROOM TO MOVE. Swallowing hard, Pressler agreed to a measure that would let long-distance companies into local markets in one year and the Bells into long distance after three. The bill also would abolish most cable-rate regulation.
But the next step will be a lot tougher. The Democrats' proposal would continue to regulate cable rates and would free the Bells to enter new businesses only when they can prove that they've removed potential barriers to competition. But there may be room for compromise. Severing the cable part of the GOP measure would help. And to assuage long-distance carriers, lawmakers could extend the date for the Bells' entry into long distance by a year or so.
What's unclear is whether Pressler can cut such a deal. His efforts to get the long-distance carriers and Baby Bells to resolve their differences have gone nowhere. Washington insiders say that Pressler is considered a loner, not known for working with other lawmakers. He has sponsored virtually no significant legislation during his two decades in Congress.
What's more, Pressler's fragile ego makes him wary of Democrats he must bargain with, especially when he thinks they're usurping his prerogatives as chairman. At a gathering in December, for instance, he was miffed when Vice-President Al Gore launched the feds' first airwaves auction without noting it was a GOP idea. "It was embarrassing to be on the stage," Pressler says.
Lobbyists also worry about Pressler's penchant for shooting from the lip. He turned an offhand comment by a Bell Atlantic Corp. executive into firm interest in buying the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, prompting the phone company to distance itself from the idea quickly when Pressler mentioned it on Face the Nation.
Luckily, Pressler has some powerful allies on his side. Dole, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and the high-tech-oriented White House all are pushing for telecom legislation. With that kind of backing, Pressler may not need respect to succeed.
BORN Mar. 29, 1942, in Humboldt, S.D.
EDUCATION Graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1964 from University of South Dakota. Rhodes Scholar. Master's in government and law degree from Harvard.
MILITARY SERVICE Army lieutenant, Vietnam 1966-68.
POLITICAL CAREER Two terms in House, 1974-78. Elected to Senate in 1978. Ran brief campaign for President in 1980.
PERSONAL Drives John Deere tractors for fun, attends Bible classes.By Mark Lewyn in Washington