As previously reported, the bill is 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 the measure protects business interests at the expense of consumers.
The Senate bill would set some punitive damage caps for businesses, protect municipalities and governmental entities from punitive damages, and preserve state court standards in these expected lawsuits.
Last week, Senate supporters of the bill were sparked into action by the House's approval of a similar, yet slightly stronger, measure that looks to limit Y2K lawsuit costs by delaying Y2K lawsuits during a 90-day "time-out" period, cap punitive damages, and limit the liability of company executives.
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. The administration urged Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), the key sponsor of the Senate bill, and his colleagues to hammer out a compromise.
An agreement was subsequently reached after McCain altered the bill 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 bill was pushed aside as the Senate needed to make urgent votes on the Kosovo military campaign and banking reform.
Should the Senate approve the measure this time around, both bills will go to conference, where they will be hammered into one. The bill will then go to the president, who has threatened to veto the versions as they now stand. However, the White House will join in the conference process to work out measures that could ensure presidential approval for a bill, Senate staffers 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.