The Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem will hold an impromptu meeting next week to address two controversial bills that look to curb Y2K litigation.
The announcement of the meeting comes less than 24 hours after one of the bills, cosponsored by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), passed the first of many hurdles on its way to becoming a law yesterday when the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved the Y2K Act.
Senate staffers said the vote was straight down party lines, indicating a growing divide.
The other bill, which was cosponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Some Congress members and many in the technology industry want to protect companies from what they consider frivolous lawsuits. Other Congress members, consumer advocates, and some lawyers don't want to deny consumers and small business owners the means to protect their assets and businesses if they suffer from Y2K glitches caused by other organizations' lack of preparation.
Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-South Carolina), ranking democrat on the commerce committee, criticized the McCain legislation.
"The bill in its current form does not help small and medium-sized business owners, consumers, and professional service providers like doctors or accountants," Hollings said in a statement. "In fact, it is little more than an effort to protect big business from its responsibility to ensure that its products work on January 1, 2000."
The committee approval comes just days after Senate Judiciary Committee hearings opened on the Hatch bill backed by leading computer and software companies that would limit punitive damages in Y2K cases, delay lawsuits during a 90-day "cooling-off" period, and cap the liability of company executives for failing to fix computers by January 1, 2000.
During the Judiciary Committee hearing, supporters argued the bipartisan proposal would cut down on the number of trivial lawsuits, which some experts estimate could cost more than $1 trillion worldwide.
However, as reported earlier, Assistant Attorney General Eleanor Acheson told the Judiciary Committee the legislation went too far, giving big technology companies protection in court that they may not deserve, while limiting the legal rights of small businesses and consumers to sue if their computers go haywire.
Acheson said the bill might also undermine Y2K readiness by taking pressure off the very companies charged with fixing the problem. "Accordingly, the department urges the committee not to act hastily."
Judiciary Committee staffers told CNET News.com the bill needs more work and the committee will look at it again, possibly as early as next week.
There is now talk of combining the two bills before they get to the Senate. During a press conference for the release of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem report on the national impact of Y2K, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), a member of that committee, said the two Y2K litigation bills "will likely be merged into one."
Staffers from Smith's office said the special committee next Thursday will hear from both Senators Hatch and McCain regarding their two bills, look for ways to "massage" the details of the two decrees and reach a compromise.
The Judiciary Committee's press secretary, Jeanne Lopatto, said Committee chairman Hatch is open to the possibility of combining the two before they reach the Senate floor. "Some version of the two may be what goes before the Senate. Hatch's view is that we need to get a bill passed that addresses these issues."