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Senate pushes ahead with liability bill

Sparked by House passage of a bill limiting litigation costs arising from the Y2K bug, a group of Senators are trying to break deadlock on a similar bill.

    Sparked by the passage of House bill that looks to limit litigation costs arising from the Year 2000 bug, a bipartisan group of Senators urge their colleagues to pass a similar bill that has been stalled for weeks.

    Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), and Slade Gorton (R-Washington) today spoke at a news conference to urge passage of the Y2K Act, formally known as S.96.

    "I understand that there may be senators with other suggestions or different perspectives who want to offer amendments, but we have to consider the bill on the floor and get to a vote," McCain insisted today.

    Senate staffers Back to Year 2000 Index Page said they expect the Y2K Act to come up for a vote sometime next week. although at the end of last month, the bill did not withstand a Democratic filibuster. Should the Senate approve the measure this time around, both bills will go to conference, where they will hammered into one. The bill would then go to the president, who has threatened to veto each version as it now stands.

    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 they protect business interests at the expense of consumers.

    The Senate bill differs in several ways from the proposal that passed the House yesterday. The McCain-Wyden bill looks to limit Y2K lawsuit costs by setting some punitive damage caps for businesses, protecting municipalities and governmental entities from punitive damages, and preserving state court standards in expected lawsuits.

    The House bill, approved by 236-190, includes a measure that would delay Y2K lawsuits during a 90-day "time-out" period, cap punitive damages, and limit the liability of company executives.

    Supporters say both aim to stop frivolous claims--not legitimate ones--and hope to prevent the threat of litigation from stifling efforts to address the problem.

    Each version has been pushed by computer and software companies and a wide range of other business groups. But the White House and many Democrats oppose many of the measures, arguing they would give too much protection to big business at the expense of consumers.

    The White House has specifically threatened to veto any Y2K litigation legislation that includes caps, protections for chief executives and board members from litigation, and modification of state court rules and urged McCain and his colleagues to hammer out a compromise. Agreement was subsequently reached after McCain, the key sponsor of the Senate bill, agreed to eliminate caps on punitive damages for big business and dropped a provision that would have protected individual corporate officers and directors, but Democrats then maneuvered to try to add unrelated amendments to the bill.

    The American Electronics Association (AEA) yesterday praised the House of Representatives for what it called swift bipartisan passage of the Year 2000 Readiness and Responsibility Act.

    "The high-tech industry is the engine behind our nation's remarkable economic growth and we have been working diligently to ensure that this growth does not diminish as a result of Y2K problems," said William T. Archey, CEO of AEA, in a statement.

    "This legislation provides a necessary legal framework that employs balance and reason with a shared responsibility to remedy any problems that may occur," he said.

    During the press conference today, McCain praised the House vote and said it was an important action that he hopes will provides momentum for successful passage of the bill before the Senate.

    "The House bill includes several provisions...we have eliminated or revised...during negotiations with Senators Wyden, Dodd, and Lieberman over the past several weeks," McCain said. "I think their inclusion in the final bill passed out of the House on this bipartisan vote demonstrates that these provisions were not unreasonable to begin with."

    "I think it further confirms that S.96, with the Wyden-Dodd revisions, represents significant compromise," he added.

    Though the compromise allayed some of the concerns of the White House, it wasn't enough to prevent political wrangling by the Senate leaders on how to proceed with the bill, and the bill was stalled before final vote on the measure, where it remains today.

    McCain said he doesn't want to see any additional revisions made to the Y2K Act which would limit the effectiveness of the bill, adding that his colleagues have pared away everything that is not necessary, leaving a reasonable, practical, and supportable bill.

    "While I understand the concerns expressed by the minority before our last cloture vote on S.96 on non-related issues, we should not be delaying consideration of this legislation which is of such great importance to the country's economic well-being," he said.

    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.