As the White House threatens to veto a bipartisan measure--referred to as the "Y2K Act"--to limit Y2K lawsuits, Republicans are accusing Democrats of protecting the interests of trial lawyers rather than consumers, while Democrats are accusing Republicans of trying to push tort reform under the guise of the Y2K legislation.
Both the House and Senate bills are designed to limit what supporters call a potential flood of litigation arising from Y2K problems, which by some estimates could cost $1 trillion and cripple the economy. Opponents claim such limits protect business interests at the expense of consumers.
On Friday, Republican Jack Kemp wrote a strongly worded letter to every United States senator criticizing the White House, and urging them to put partisan and political concerns aside and pass the Y2K Act.
In part he said, "White House loyalty to the trial lawyers is no excuse to play games with this bill. The White House has clearly failed to lead on this important national issue in spite of their hollow protechnology rhetoric. The Senate must now reject special interest lobbying by trial lawyers associations and consider the broader interests of American consumers, small and large businesses, and our growth leading high-tech community," Kemp wrote.
The White House is hesitant to get involved in the heated political storm surrounding the bills, would not comment on any specific accusations by the Republicans, and is sticking to the recent letter they sent to Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), which threatened the veto and gave support to an alternative to the Y2K Act submitted by a group of Democrats led by Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts).
Like the Y2K Act, Kerry's would give defendants up to 90 days to fix Y2K problems before a lawsuit could be filed. It would make it harder to file certain class action lawsuits and would bar damages for economic losses, according to Sen. Kerry's office.
The Kerry plan, backed by Senate minority leader Tom Daschle would safeguard consumer rights. For example, Democrats said they would not cap any punitive damage awards.
Republicans deny any attempts to pass tort reform with the Y2K Act, which has gained support from some Democrats.
"It cracks me up," said Pia Pialorsi, a spokesperson from Sen. John McCain, who is the key sponsor of the Y2K Act. "This is clearly not the case. The bill provides a 'sunset' provision, which means it is a temporary measure to address only Y2K related cases occurring before January 1, 2003. This is hardly tort reform," she said.
But Democrats argue that the bill is being backed by the National Chamber of Commerce which, they claim, is intent on passing product liability and doing away with trial by jury and other State tort systems.
One Democratic senate source said the technology sector has fallen prey to the National Chamber of Commerce, which, along with many Republicans, has long been a supporter of tort law reform.
The Senate source, who didn't want to be named, said the tech community knows it has been "screwed" by the National Chamber of Commerce, but can't do anything for fear of losing support from the politically influential group.
Democrats have been criticized for holding up passage of any lawsuit limits because of the party's close ties to trial lawyers around the country, which strongly support the Democratic Party.
"It's obvious, look how many times Democrats have held up this legislation," claims Pialorsi.
The McCain bill has been stalled since first submitted by the Arizona Republican late last month.
The Democrats dispute the trial lawyer connection, saying their alternative measure would still limit lawsuits, but also provide protections for consumers.
Senate leaders expect further debate on the two Senate bills some time in the next few weeks.
The growing political storm comes with just more than six months remaining before the century date change.
Experts warn that the ultimate outcome of the congressional debates--a single piece of legislation that will clearly define legal limits over Y2K settlements--is crucial to avoid clogging courts with years of costly litigation.
The Year 2000 problem, also known as the millennium bug, stems from an old programming shortcut that used only the last two digits of the year. Many computers now must be modified or they may mistake the year 2000 for the year 1900 and may not be able to function at all, observers warn.