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Race is on for Net bills

With Congress racing the clock, legislation involving Net taxes, high-tech workers, shareholder lawsuits, and others face quick votes or death.

Several Net bills are in limbo today, as Congress races to approve the federal budget for next year.

Already lawmakers accomplished one feat today--passing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to lay out new protections for online material and to outlaw circumventing technologies that safeguard digital works. The bill now has to be signed by President Clinton.

A handful of other proposals, such as hotly debated legislation to set up a three-year moratorium on taxing Net access and services, still face sudden death unless they win lawmakers' last-minute approval.

Also on the table are Silicon Valley-backed proposals to raise the cap on the number of foreign high-tech workers let into the country each year and to limit frivolous shareholder lawsuits against companies with volatile stock prices.

As usual, lawmakers are cutting it close. The Senate is trying to adjourn by midnight, although the House could keep working until Thursday. Political infighting could cause some of the high-tech bills to be scrapped. In other cases, Net legislation could be left by the wayside because Congress has other priorities--such as avoiding a government shutdown.

Net tax time-out
"The appropriations bills are eating up the clock--fiscal 1999 began October 1," said Peter Arnold, a spokesman for the Internet Tax Fairness Coalition, which is lobbying for passage of the Internet Tax Freedom Act.

The Net tax bill, passed by the Senate, sets up a national time-out on "discriminatory" online taxes, but exempts sites that give "harmful" material to minors and also imposes online privacy protections for children. The House is considering the bill now.

The tax moratorium could be tacked on to a temporary federal appropriations package that both houses are scrambling to pass to keep the government running until midnight Wednesday.

"The bill will likely be passed by the House in one of two ways: Either it will be attached to the omnibus spending bill which is due out on Wednesday or it may be voted on by the House as a free-standing bill as early as today," Arnold added.

Foreign high-tech workers
The omnibus spending legislation also could include Rep. Lamar Smith's (R-Texas) Workforce Improvement and Protection Act , which would almost double the number of highly skilled technology workers allowed into the country each year.

If the higher H1-B visa cap is not passed as part of the large spending bill, it will likely die.

After a compromise was struck with the White House, Smith's bill passed the House by a 288-133 vote, but it has yet to clear the Senate.

The Clinton administration agreed to boost the number of H1-B visas for technical and well-educated workers from 65,000 to 115,000 in 1999 and 2000. However, a select number of high-tech companies that hire a lot of H1-B employees will be subject to increased Labor Department monitoring.

The bill imposes stiffer penalties for firing an American worker in favor of a H1-B visa holder, and for paying foreign workers lower wages than their American counterparts.

On Friday, the Senate attempted to vote on the bill, but action was blocked by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). A version of the legislation passed the Senate earlier this year, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) expressed frustration Saturday with Harkin's opposition, which is allowed under Senate rules.

Harkin rehashed an ongoing argument that the high-tech industry is not starving for workers and is in fact laying off tens of thousands of workers this year alone.

"Now, ostensibly, the reason for doing this, and why this came up in the last couple of years, is that there was projected to be a big shortage in computer programmers," Harkin said on the floor. "It turns out that has, indeed, not happened."

Shareholder lawsuits
Finally, legislation pushed by the high-tech industry to curb frivolous shareholder lawsuits against companies with volatile stock prices also is hanging in the balance.

The Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act has already passed both houses, but now the conference report that reconciled the bills is set for final passage. The bill will then be sent to President Clinton, who has promised to sign it.

Endorsed by the Securities and Exchange Commission and pushed by Silicon Valley's TechNet trade group, the legislation would impose "uniform standards" regarding shareholder lawsuits filed in state courts against nationally traded public companies.

Reuters contributed to this report.