Today should be a day of celebration for the public-safety-communications community. Last night, the Senate approved legislation establishing a Feb. 17, 2009, date for public safety to access 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band and $1 billion in interoperability grants.

Senators essentially approved the same bill that passed the House earlier this week. The House voted for it, the Senate voted for it, so it's just awaiting President Bush's signature to become law, right?

Wrong -- nothing ever seems to be quite that simple in Washington.

Apparently, the Senate version of the budget bill includes some "technical corrections" that were not in the version that the House passed, so it has to go back to the House for a vote. Normally, that could be done with a voice vote, but one lawmaker has asked for a roll-call vote that likely won't happen this year, said Yucel Ors, legislative director for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

"It passed the Senate, it passed the House, but the Senate put in changes, so ... it will have to be taken up again next year, in January," Ors said. "The House has to pass it again, and the Senate has to pass it again, and they have to do conference report ... if it goes next year."

Even that wouldn't be a big issue, if the scope of the budget legislation remains unchanged, because there are only technical differences in the versions passed by the House and Senate.

But a conference could result in other items being attached to the legislation. Of particular concern is a controversial effort to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. A priority for powerful Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), this provision was struck from defense-budget legislation, generating an unusually emotional floor speech last night from the embittered Stevens.

Some Beltway sources believe Stevens will continue to try to get ANWR drilling approved by attempting to attach the provision to general-budget legislation. If he succeeds, the budget package immediately will transform from a "sure thing" to an issue that will be the subject of a lengthy, raging debate.

Perhaps the 700 MHz provisions could be introduced as separate legislation, but that tactic has not been successful in the past. Or, maybe the House leadership will pass everything by a voice vote today. But don't count on it.

Thing can change quickly, but it looks like public safety again could be stuck in the middle of debate when everyone agrees on its issues. And that's not the holiday celebration anyone wanted this year.

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