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Politics' Strange Webfellows

When Mike McCurry was spokesman for President Clinton and Susan Molinari was a congresswoman from New York, they often were on opposite sides. McCurry pushed the Democratic president's agenda and Molinari was a leader of the new House Republican majority.

Today, they are working together, pushing legislation that would allow regional telephone companies, including Bell Atlantic and SBC Communications, to provide high-speed Internet connections.

Their lobbying of Congress and federal regulators could help determine how millions of consumers receive high-speed Internet access - dozens of times faster than today's dial-up connections and a new generation of telephone and television services.

"It's a classic battle," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee that is at the center of the fight. "It's a race to the doorstep of America. Whoever can get there first is going to win."

Susan Molinari

Aligned against them are another pair of former political opposites: former Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., who is Molinari's husband; and former Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif. In 1994, Paxon and Fazio led their parties' House campaign committees.

Now they represent a coalition led by AT&T, which is spending more than $100 billion to buy cable television companies and upgrade their lines to provide high-speed Internet access and local phone service.

A third coalition, which wants to open the cable lines to all comers and is spearheaded by America Online, features two others from opposite sides of the political spectrum: Richard Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Greg Simon, onetime domestic policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore.

Hiring these big names is like buying a skeleton key: It opens doors. And they're helping the communications companies force their issues onto the legislative agenda.

"It impresses members that this is a subject matter they ought to pay attention to," Tauzin said. "They say, 'I've got to learn something about this.'"

Most of the lobbying centers on how much the Federal Communications Commission should or should not do to regulate cable and phone lines. Some interests want Congress to modify the law in their favor.

All of the companies believe consumers eventually will choose one supplier for local and long distance phone service, cable TV and high-speed Internet access, and they are jockeying for that business.

Molinari, who left the House for a short-lived job on CBS News Saturday Morning, and McCurry are featured in newspaper and radio ads. They also visit newspaper editorial boards and travel to Capitol Hill together to make their pitch.

"It's just another campaign," Molinai said. "It's strategy, it's believing in your argument, it's timing, it's negotiation. In many ways, it is a campaign, whether it's a campaign to get yourself elected or to get a bill passed."

Molinari and McCurry spent a couple of weeks learning the jargon and technical issues.

"I haven't seen as dense a subject matter since I first stepped up to the State Department podium," said McCurry, who was department spokesman before going to the White House. "It was learning a whole new language. You feel completely inadequate as you listen to all these 30-year-old guys breeze through this stuff."

On the other side, Paxon and Fazio were in Congress when the telecommunications deregulation bill passed in 1996; Paxon was a member of the House Commerce Committee that drafted the legislation.

"Not only do we know the system and the players, we know the issue," Paxon said. "We've been actively involved in the legislation and we have a personal interest in making sure that the telecommunications act we helped shepherd through Congress works."

Still, how effective these big-name lobbyists are remains to be seen.

"It's always nice to see your former colleagues," said Commerce Committee chairman Thomas Bliley Jr., R-Va., "but I disagreed with them when they were here, so it's no different than disagreeing with them when they're not here."

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