Last-Minute Senate Deal Saves Children's Internet Protection Act

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - In a last-minute deal, the Senate Republican leadership came up with a compromise that allowed the Children's Internet Protection Act back into the Senate conference report, thus keeping alive a measure that will require schools and libraries to filter access to obscenity on computers in use by minors.

The Children's Internet Protection Act, which is attached to the House and Senate Appropriations Bill, would require schools and libraries receiving federal subsidies to install anti-pornography filters on their computers.

The Senate passed two competing Republican proposals last month - one by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Fritz Hollings (D-SC), and another by Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA).

The McCain-Hollings amendment, which passed 95-3, said schools and libraries receiving federal Internet subsidies would have to install technology to filter access to pornography in cases where computers are used by minors. Moreover, schools and libraries would have to certify to the Federal Communications Commission that they had done so.

Santorum proposed a less restrictive measure, giving schools the option of either installing the blocking technology or developing an Internet use policy. While the Santorum bill provided for blocking and filtering, it left open the option of an acceptable use policy.

Critics said the Santorum bill would gut the McCain amendment because it would keep open what they called "the status quo loophole." As evidence of its ineffectiveness, they noted that the American Library Association, which has adopted as part of its charter the rejection of any sort of blocking or filtering, endorsed the Santorum amendment. It passed 75-24.

Critics of the McCain bill, on the other hand, said this legislation gave the FCC too much authority. The bill would lead to a chilling of free speech and would make the FCC "the de facto national censor," Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said.

After straight up or down votes on each amendment - first McCain's, then Santorum's - the McCain amendment became the official Senate position.

"Santorum's was more of a political vote," said a source close to the proceedings. "It provided Democrats that didn't like the idea of voting for blocking or filtering the best of both worlds where they could vote for the tough restriction [McCain-Hollings] but then turn around and vote for the ALA alternative [Santorum's]."

Both amendments were attached to a Labor/Health and Human Services Appropriations Bill.

Normally, Senate rules forbid adding legislation to an appropriations bill. McCain got around this obstruction under an obscure Senate rule called "defensive germaneness" that comes into effect if the House has a similar legislative item in their bill when it reaches the Senate.

The first hurdle for lawmakers charged with bringing into alignment the House and Senate versions of the Children's Internet Protection Act was language in the House version sponsored by Representative Ernest Istook (R-OK) tying filtering requirements to receipt of education funds.

"A lot of members on both sides of the committee had problems with that," said a source who worked on the legislation.

Another sticking point was a Santorum provision allowing schools and libraries to opt out of blocking and filtering, which went to the heart of the McCain version.

By the middle of last week, lawmakers got word that the conferees had dropped provisions on filtering.

With the conference on Labor-HHS scheduled to close July 27, it looked certain that filtering was dead, since McCain made clear that the desire of those who supported the measure - including family groups across the country - would rather take the whole issue down than put into law an "acceptable use" policy favored by Santorum.

But after meetings that included Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), Santorum compromised and allowed language that would require schools and libraries to block or filter access to obscenity and child pornography on all computers and material harmful to minors on computers in use by minors.

At the last second, the conferees required that the authorizing committees of both the House and the Senate would need to sign off on any final agreement. House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-VA) agreed to sign off on the provisions.

Last Thursday, the scheduled deadline for the Labor-HHS conference, Lott, McCain and Santorum met on the Senate floor and came to final agreement on language. McCain had fought the Children's Internet Protection Act back into the Labor-HHS conference report literally at the last minute.

"All this is happening as they're signing the conference report on the floor of the Senate, and they walked in with an agreement as the conference was adjourning," the source said.