A Virginia senator and a representative criticized the Commerce Department on Friday for its proposal to shut down the department's Springfield-based National Technical Information Service, a clearinghouse for federal studies in sciences and technology.

In a letter to Commerce Department Secretary William Daley, Sen. John W. Warner (R) and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R) criticized the department's "apparent lack of willingness to work with Congress and NTIS employees to craft a sound restructuring proposal that will fulfill the twin needs of meeting NTIS' mission and treating its employees and their families in a fair and just manner."

Davis didn't learn of the department's plans until Wednesday morning, said Peter Sirh, his spokesman.

More than 260 jobs are at stake under the proposal, most in Springfield, which is in Davis's district.

Daley said if Congress acts on the proposal, he is asking that "we take every step possible to find them other jobs within the department or the federal government."

The Commerce Department defends its proposal, saying that with the Internet offering free and easy access to government information, the NTIS's core function is no longer needed.

It will send the formal proposal to Congress next month, requesting to close the unit and shift its paper, microfiche, digital archives and bibliographic database to the Library of Congress.

The NTIS has been a clearinghouse for government reports in the sciences and technology since 1950. It prints and sells official federal studies and documents, including reports on subjects such as the state of the cellular telephone business in the United States and the Food and Drug Administration's food code for restaurants.

In 1987, Congress stopped allocating money to the clearinghouse, declaring it a self-sustaining unit. Since then, the NTIS has been dependent largely on sales of its documents. Twice during the past decade, Congress has stepped in to provide the NTIS with money to stay afloat.

"When the same precise document is available for $27 on one part of our Web site and for free on another, it is not very difficult to understand the current and future problems that NTIS faces," Daley said.

According to the Commerce Department proposal, sales of publications from the NTIS clearinghouse dropped to 1.3 million documents in fiscal 1998 from almost 2.3 million documents in fiscal 1993.

The NTIS has used a majority of its retained earnings over the past several years to cover sales losses, the Commerce Department proposal said. In February, the department asked for $2 million to help the agency stay afloat during fiscal 2000 and agreed to submit a proposal to restructure the NTIS.

While NTIS spokeswoman Renee Edwards acknowledged that the agency "has had trouble in the past," she attributed the losses to the costs of shifting the NTIS away from a paper document warehouse to an electronic storage center for information .

"We're getting ready for the electronic world. Has it destroyed our business? Not at all," Edwards said. "We are hopeful, with a little better understanding, we can all come to an agreement together."

But Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said the Commerce Department's move was understandable and that he wouldn't opposed the closing of the NTIS.

"Something had to happen. It's clear that if a function of the federal government is outmoded, this administration is going to eliminate it."