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The Y2K bug meets the Washington bug

With less than seven months to go before the new year, both the House and the Senate are slowly hammering out bills to limit lawsuits that may arise from Y2K problems.

    The year 2000 technology problem can't escape Washington politics.

    With less than seven months to go before the new year, both the House of Representatives and the Senate are slowly hammering out bills intended to limit lawsuits that may arise from Year 2000-related computer problems.

    Experts warn that the Back to Year 2000 Index Page ultimate outcome of the congressional debates--a single piece of legislation that will clearly define legal limits over Y2K settlements--is crucial to avoid clogging courts with years of costly litigation.

    While the House prepares to debate a partisan bill that looks to limit litigation costs arising from the Y2K bug, a similar measure on the Senate floor continues in a holding pattern as senators argue debating procedures.

    The House measure is now set to go before the full chamber, but a date for debate on the bill to start has not been set. Because the Senate is currently discussing legislation on banking and the Kosovo crisis, discussion on the Senate's Y2K legislation isn't expected until next week, Senate staffers said.

    Although the White House publicly criticized the House bill, the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee last night approved legislation that protects companies and their top executives against lawsuits stemming from the Year 2000 computer problem.

    The House bill delays Y2K bug lawsuits during a 30-to-90 day "time out" period, caps punitive damages, and limits the liability of company executives, according to Judiciary Committee staff. The bill, titled "The Year 2000 Readiness and Responsibility Act of 1999," is supported by the Chamber of Commerce as well as major computer and software companies.

    A similar bill is stuck in the Senate after it was stalled by procedural wrangling between Republican and Democratic party leaders.

    Senate Democrats are arguing that debate on the "Y2K Act" needs to continue to get a bipartisan bill passed. But Senate Republicans have moved to end debate on the matter, saying a bipartisan agreement reached just a day before the current stalemate marks the end of talks, and some Democrats just want to add non-Y2K-related amendments to the bill.

    The deal reached by Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), Bob Bennett (R-Utah), John McCain (R-Arizona), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and Dianne Feinstein (D-California) would retain some, but not all, punitive damage caps for businesses, protect municipalities and governmental entities from punitive damages, and preserve state court standards, thus watering down some of the controversial points in the "Y2K Act" that have tied up the bill in debates.

    Despite the bipartisan agreement, Democratic leadership in the Senate wants more time to debate the legislation.

    "We're not attempting to add any non germane amendments," said a spokesman from Senate minority leader Tom Daschle's office. "We just want a substantive agreement, something the president can sign."

    The White House has said President Bill Clinton is prepared to veto any legislation that tries to cap damages and protect company executives from litigation. This would mean the current bill before the House will likely be denied if it passes. The White House has not given commented on the bipartisan agreement reached in the Senate, which will be revisited next week.

    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, causing widespread disruptions in services in the transportation, financial, utility, and public safety sectors, observers warn.