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A Capitol Hill Cell Phone Saga

One of the ways you know you're a somebody in Washington is that you're too important to be away from a phone - even in your car, reports CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg.

But it's hard for a somebody to stay a "somebody" when you're cruising along, talking to the Assistant Secretary to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Important Matters and your voice turns into audio hash. And that's what happens on the drive through Washington's Rock Creek Park.

There are no antennas to relay the signals because the U.S. Park Service has spent years deciding whether they're an acceptable eyesore - a decision complicated by the fact many people who use the park don't want antennas.

"It's not important to many people whether they have access to their cell phones when they're in the park . . . when they're getting away from the urban environment," says District of Columbia City Councilman Phil Mendelson.

But Bell Atlantic, the telephone giant that wanted the antennas, knew how Washington works - that if you stroke the right somebodies in Congress - your call goes through.

Bell Atlantic had solid-gold contacts. It gave $800,000 to politicians last year. So, when it suggested that key Congressmen complain about the situation, they did.

In a letter to the Interior Secretary, members warned of "numerous complaints from our colleagues" about lost calls.

Next, a Bell Atlantic lobbyist asked Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, for help, faxing along just the right legislation they wanted introduced. McCain said, "no."


Phone-friendly Daschle

But Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., the powerful Minority Leader of the Senate, offered to push the antennas. Bell Atlantic says he was ticked off his own calls were being cut off. He denies it was personal at all.

Eric Engberg: Do you yourself have a cellular phone?

Daschle: "I do have . . . many of them."

Eric Engberg: Have you had any trouble in Rock Creek Park or environs?

Daschle: "I really don't use Rock Creek Park that much."

Whatever. As the Senate took up a bill on a totally different topic, Daschle introduced what's called a "rider," forcing antennas into the park without further ado.

It was 8:38 p.m. and the Senate chamber was nearly empty.

"I think this is a critical issue for public safety," Daschle intoned.

The rider slid through - no questions asked.

Daschle says it was all about getting those 911 calls through.

"First of all the law enforcement community. Secondly, the medical community. And third, a number of users in the neighborhood have contacted us," the senator said.

President Clinton this week vetoed the bill that carried Daschle's rider. But Daschle's not quitting. And he ca rely on the support of hundreds of somebodies in Congress who know it's a crisis when their own words can't be heard.

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