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Comcast lobbyist Cohen meets his match in FCC's Wheeler

U.S. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies before the House Communications and Technology panel on Capitol Hill in Washington December 12, 2013
U.S. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies before the House Communications and Technology panel on Capitol Hill in Washington December 12, 2013

By Alina Selyukh and Liana B. Baker

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Comcast Corp's top lobbyist David Cohen is known to be a savvy political operator, having pushed through the No. 1 U.S. cable operator's landmark acquisition of media giant NBC Universal in 2011.

But when it comes to getting approval for Comcast to buy its biggest rival, Time Warner Cable Inc, Cohen must win over someone just as well versed in the ways of lobbyists and the cable industry: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Wheeler headed the cable trade group from 1979 to 1984 and ran the wireless industry association from 1992 to 2004. Since taking over the FCC last November, however, he has not shied away from stances that have roiled past allies.

One of his most attention-grabbing moves was in February, when Wheeler publicly expressed skepticism about a potential merger between wireless carriers Sprint Corp and T-Mobile U.S. Inc.

"You can't kid a kidder. Having been a lobbyist, he knows all their tricks," Blair Levin, a fellow at the Washington-based nonprofit Aspen Institute, said of Wheeler.

Comcast will formally request an FCC review of the $45.2 billion Time Warner Cable deal later in March. The combined company will cover just under 30 percent of the U.S. pay television video market and about 33 percent of the high-speed Internet market, according to MoffettNathanson Research.

Wheeler and other FCC officials have declined to comment on the proposed merger before seeing the details. Even privately, Wheeler has given few hints of his views, leaving all options on the table, FCC sources say.

"All we can ask for is a full, fair, and open hearing - and I think Chairman Wheeler's message is that is what we will get," Cohen told Reuters in February.

Cohen, 59, has yet to meet with Wheeler, 67, about the review, but the Comcast executive vice president has made the rounds at the FCC, asking staff to keep an open mind even as some lawmakers and public interest groups criticize the merger.

Opponents say the combined company will have too much power over what Americans can watch on television and do online. Comcast says it will not take away any existing choices from consumers, and will instead lead to faster broadband speeds and serve businesses better.

POWER BROKERS

Comcast ranks among the top-ten corporate influencers in Washington, having spent $18.8 million on lobbying last year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Cohen and Wheeler do not know each other well, according to Cohen, but their paths have crossed in senior political and industry circles.

Both men are supporters of President Barack Obama, each helping to raise more than half a million dollars for his re-election campaign in 2012, according to disclosures.

Wheeler advised Obama on tech policy, and the president has called him "the Bo Jackson of telecom" because of Wheeler's history in the cable and wireless industries. Jackson is the only athlete to be named an All-Star in two major American sports, baseball and football.

Cohen, too, is no stranger to Obama's White House. Visitor logs put Cohen, who is not a registered lobbyist, there for meetings and receptions 14 times since 2010, including twice at the Oval Office.

People who know Cohen and Wheeler describe them in similar terms: steady negotiators with a strong grasp of the issues at stake, as well as the players at the table.

Cohen "goes to a meeting and knows exactly who is going to be there and what are their dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses, positioning, what they've done for him and how much they've helped him," said a former colleague who requested anonymity.

A long-time Philadelphia power broker, Cohen in the 1990s was the closest aide to then Mayor Ed Rendell, who turned around the city's budget deficit and battled labor unions over cost cuts. Cohen is known as a fixer who keeps binders full of data at his fingertips.

Colleagues of Wheeler, a published historian, also highlight his subject expertise.

"He knows these issues like the back of his hand," one FCC official who works with Wheeler said of the chairman. "He knows how the business runs. He knows these people, he knows what they think and what policies they want."

As FCC chairman, Wheeler has publicly and repeatedly stated his "unabashed" support for competition. He has also hired a heavyweight consumer advocate, Gigi Sohn, as a senior adviser.

DEAL'S FATE IN FCC'S HANDS

The Justice Department and the FCC are expected to take months to review the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, focusing on antitrust and public interest concerns respectively.

Comcast has tried to ease the way for the deal with a range of commitments, some of them extensions of the promises it made as part of the NBC Universal acquisition. For instance, Comcast said it would divest about 3 million subscribers, preserve so-called net neutrality and extend a discounted Internet service program.

TV and Internet content companies say they are formulating their strategies on dealing with the proposed merger of the two largest cable service providers. Some are interviewing lobby shops to potentially use their help to win concessions from Comcast related to carrying their content.

"In the longer run there are some questions on competition that any deal like this will look at, the government will look at and make sure the appropriate conditions are in place to optimize competition," Time Warner Inc Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes said at a conference on Tuesday.

(Corrects paragraph 14 to say Bo Jackson was an all-star in baseball, not basketball)

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh in Washington and Liana B. Baker in New York; Editing by Christian Plumb and Tiffany Wu)

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