WASHINGTON An effort to delay the February 17 deadline for a nationwide switch to digital television failed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday after Republicans blocked the move.
The legislation is backed by President Barack Obama and already passed the U.S. Senate. However, it failed to gain the required two-thirds support in the House under special rules adopted for the vote.
Consumer groups have been pushing the effort to delay the transition date to June 12 from February 17, worried that 20 million mostly poor, elderly and rural households are not ready for the congressionally mandated switch.
"It's really unfortunate," said Joel Kelsey, an analyst at Consumers Union. "Consumers are staring at a big, fat, unfunded mandate in the midst of an economic crisis."
More than one million people are on a waiting list for $40 government coupons to subsidize the cost of converter boxes needed by those with older televisions. The agency that runs the program ran out of coupons earlier this month.
Democrats may try again next week, but this time in a way that would possibly permit amendments and require a simple majority to pass.
If the House approves any changes, the bill would have to return to the Senate for final passage.
Only those who watch television on older sets that receive analog signals, and do not get cable, must act to prevent their screens from going black.
About 6.5 million households are not ready for the transition, according to the latest data from Nielsen Ratings.
The vote went largely along party lines, with Republicans blocking the effort. In a statement to House speaker Nancy Pelosi, top Republicans said now is a time to negotiate.
Most Republicans believe boosting the funding of the government coupon program will alleviate most of the problems and that a delay will create more confusion.
Joe Barton, the most senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, with jurisdiction over the issue, blamed the Administration of President Barack Obama for throttling a bipartisan effort to fix the problems.
"Had that work not been interrupted by the transition team's intervention, it seems likely that a bipartisan bill could have been through the House and the Senate already," he said in a letter to Pelosi on Wednesday.
Under the version that passed the Senate, licenses for $16 billion worth of spectrum freed up by the switch, and purchased by AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications, would be extended by about four months.
(Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Bernard Orr)