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Bill may pressure DOJ's Klein

Microsoft supporters in the Senate are looking to use a funding bill to put the Justice antitrust chief on the defensive.

A coalition of Microsoft supporters in the Senate is looking to use a funding bill to put Justice Department antitrust chief Joel Klein on the defensive, according to Capitol Hill sources.

The Senate Appropriations Committee next week will discuss a bill to provide funding for the agency in the coming year, and some members of the committee are floating a proposed rider that would criticize the antitrust division for "improper public relations activities."

Their activity comes in the aftermath of the agency's antitrust lawsuits against the software giant. Klein recently has defended the agency's position in public appearances.

In addition, the pro-Microsoft senators may challenge recent claims by Klein that his antitrust division needs increased funding in order to scrutinize the unprecedented spate of corporate buyouts of late. The appropriations bill and the proposed rider are set to be marked up on Tuesday in the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and Judiciary Appropriations.

"The committee is concerned that the antitrust division is expending funds for improper public relations activities in connection with its investigation of the software industry," the proposed rider, a copy of which was obtained by CNET NEWS.COM, reads. "The committee notes that the Department of Justice manual specifically directs that 'out-of-court statements regarding investigations, indictments, ongoing litigation, and other activities should be minimal.' "

A congressional aide who asked not to be identified said the rider is likely to be approved because it does not involve the spending of any money. "Unless you have someone adamantly on the other side, it's not likely to be opposed," the aide said.

The pro-Microsoft members of the appropriations committee include Sens. Slade Gorton and Patty Murray--both from the software giant's home state--as well as Lauch Faircloth, a North Carolina senator who recently attacked the Justice Department's case against Microsoft.

The draft of the bill now calls for $98 million to be earmarked for the antitrust division. According Washington sources, Klein has asked that his division receive $9 million more. At a hearing last Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Klein asked for "additional resources," citing increased administrative costs.

"These mergers take significant time and resources to evaluate properly," he said at the time.

Cynthia Bergman, a spokeswoman for Gorton's office, said Klein will not get the additional money without a fight. "If we think it's going to attack Microsoft or any other innovative company that is not harming consumers, then we're going to make sure that Klein does not get the money," she said.

Bergman added that Gorton is pressing Sen. Judd Gregg, who chairs the subcommittee, to reject additional funding. A spokesman for Gregg's office could not be reached for comment.

Although the appropriations committee may not be supportive of Klein's bid for additional funding, the legislators are not expected to cut the current funding below the $98 million requested by the Clinton administration. A congressional staffer said that idea was floated, but did not appear to have the support of most appropriations members.

The activity comes as Microsoft continues to beef up its presence in Washington. Last week, Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates met with Republican and Democratic legislators to discuss its antitrust battle with the Justice Department, along with issues such as encryption, immigration, and software piracy.

Officials at the Justice Department and at the Senate Appropriations Committee, as well as at Microsoft, all declined comment on the committee's politicking.