The West Wing remains my favorite television program, despite the fact C.J. Cregg has become Jed Bartlett's chief of staff. No disrespect to Claudia Jean--who continues to demonstrate a remarkable ability to balance glibness and feistiness--but in real life, no PR flak would become the president's right-hand person, much less by leap-frogging the deputy chief of staff.

I like the West Wing for a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is that it seems to provide a pretty convincing behind-the-scenes look at how our federal government operates. Based on this depiction, it seems appropriate to regard Washington in the same way one regards a restaurant: appreciate what they serve up but avoid venturing into the kitchen, where it is chaotic and messy.

Of course, that analogy only works when Congress actually accomplishes something. In the case of important legislation that would affect first responder communications nationwide, lawmakers have been spinning their wheels lately.

President George Bush last week ordered federal agencies to start giving up spectrum, so that airwaves might be cleared for other uses, including public-safety communications. A key component of the initiative is a trust fund that would reimburse license holders for any costs incurred by vacating spectrum. Money from the trust fund would come from FCC auctions of any cleared spectrum.

One problem is that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has threatened to block a bill that would create the trust fund and its funding mechanism until he gets what he wants, which is a national commission that would govern the sport of boxing.

One has little choice but to question McCain's priorities--if not his sanity--when he puts the interests of a comparatively miniscule group of Americans ahead of those of tens of thousands of dedicated professionals charged with the task of protecting lives and property. (However, MRT senior writer Donny Jackson reports that several Washington sources told him McCain likely will drop his opposition when the Senate returns next week.)

At the same time, one also must question the motivations of Sen. John Sununu, who played a major role in derailing the Enhanced 911 bill that would have stopped states from raiding funds allocated for public-safety answering point upgrades and provide crucial federal monies for grants to fund those projects. Sununu blocked the bill, introduced by Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), allegedly because he preferred a "holistic" approach to solving the myriad problems that afflict telecommunications in its various forms. Repeated calls to Sununu's office seeking an explanation have gone unanswered.

However, Sununu apparently got what he wanted, because the E911 bill now has been folded into HR 5419--passed by the House on Nov. 20--as has the spectrum reallocation bill and legislation that would address accounting issues concerning the universal-service fund that ensures basic wireline telephone service in rural and underserved areas. "Now you're looking at a telecom package," said Steve Seitz, director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association, who added the Senate is expected to take up the bill next week.

NENA President Bill McMurray told me today that the group believes the E911 bill deserved to "stand alone on its merits" but added that, at this point, NENA would be happy to see it passed in any form. "Our concern is just getting it passed. Very few bills stand by themselves by the time they get to the end of the Congress," McMurray said. "I'm not prepared to say that anyone is evil, wicked or mean in this. In Washington politics, this is the nature of the legislative process."

Nevertheless, the question that public safety has to be asking at this point is, how long will it take for the Senate to take action on this bill? Recall that Burns-Clinton was introduced in June 2003 and passed the Senate Commerce Committee the next month, but never reached the floor for a vote. McMurray thinks this time will be different. "There's a lot of people pushing for it," he said.

I hate to be the one to put a damper on McMurray's hopeful attitude, but a lot of people had been pushing for Burns-Clinton over the past year and a half.

E-mail me at gbischoff@primediabusiness.com.