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Tech industry shrugs off Senate shift

James Jeffords' defection from the GOP isn't worrying techies, who say their issues aren't partisan.

The tech industry issued a collective yawn over the hubbub in Washington surrounding James Jeffords' defection from the GOP.

Jeffords, a Vermont senator, said Thursday that he would leave the Republican Party to become an Independent, shifting the balance of power in the Senate to the Democrats. There will now be 49 Republicans, 50 Democrats and one Independent.

Although the Democratic control could influence industries such as energy and health care, those in the tech world said it won't have much of an effect on them.

"It's not like there's a whole new group of senators coming in," said Mark Brailov, a spokesman for the AEA, a trade group formerly known as the American Electronics Industry. "Since our issues are not defined with a partisan label, it's not as much of a concern for us as it may be for others."

In recent years, technology companies have courted both Democrats and Republicans. They've convinced lawmakers from both parties to pass legislation that, among other things, has saved them from Y2K liability, banned Internet taxes, and made electronic signatures as binding as real ones.

Just this week, the Senate overwhelmingly approved plans to make the research and development tax credit permanent, a pet project among techies who say the credit boosts their efforts to develop new technologies and create jobs.

The biggest change for technology leaders will be dealing with different people in Senate leadership roles as Democrats take charge. The powerful committee chairmen set the schedules and dictate which issues come before them.

Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry, said any effect on the technology industry probably will result from personalities, not ideology.

"We will have to change how we operate," Black said. "We might have a good friend who gets a key spot. We might have a good friend who loses a key spot."

One of the biggest worries for the high-tech industry is Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who could take over the leadership of the Commerce Committee. Hollings favors strict privacy regulations--something the industry has repeatedly fought--and he may also support stricter scrutiny of some telecom issues.

On the privacy front, Hollings backed a bill that would allow Web sites to collect personal information only from those who agreed to "opt in" to requests to use data, a measure industry groups say could stifle e-commerce.

Some technology companies also are keeping a close eye on the Judiciary Committee, where a Democratic leader could mean increased pursuit of antitrust concerns such as those that have dogged Microsoft. But again, the issues don't necessarily break down on party lines. Current Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has been one of the most vocal critics of Microsoft's actions.

Filtering has been another major issue in Washington. Last year, Congress passed a bill requiring schools and libraries receiving federal funds to filter out content deemed inappropriate for children.

Although such content restrictions often have a strong Republican backing, the American Civil Liberties Union and American Library Association, which are challenging the law, have picked as one of their plaintiffs GOP congressional candidate Jeffrey Pollock, who supported filtering but changed his mind when he learned some software blocked his campaign site.

One of the hottest tech topics in Washington, intellectual property, probably will remain unaffected by the shift. Major copyright holders such as the recording and motion picture companies have had the ears of members of both parties for years, and it's unlikely a slight Democratic advantage will result in major changes.

Technology companies might find a friendlier face for at least one issue: export controls. Some GOP members have put up roadblocks to easing restrictions on exports of powerful computers, stalling recent legislation amid fears that such machines could threaten national security. However, the Democratic Clinton administration also at first opposed lifting the limitations, acquiescing only after industry lobbying--again showing that tech industry issues don't follow party lines.

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