Senate Republicans put off yesterday the vote on a bill addressing Year 2000 computer liability issues in order to take advantage of a gathering of high-tech executives here next week, GOP aides said.
Even though the Senate appeared ready to end debate on the bill last night, with three amendments to go, Republicans said in mid-afternoon that the final vote would be held on Tuesday.
Holding the vote that day, when Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and other CEOs are scheduled to testify before Congress, will make it harder for President Clinton and Vice President Gore to continue their opposition to the bill, according to the GOP aides, who asked not to be identified.
But John Czwartacki, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), denied that the postponement was aimed at putting pressure on Clinton and Gore. He said Senate Democrats had delayed the bill's consideration earlier this year and that a further, brief delay would not matter.
The bill, which has been pushed for the past six months by a powerful coalition of business and high-tech groups, would limit class action lawsuits and punitive damages in the event of Year 2000 computer breakdowns, popularly known as Y2K.
Bill supporters contend that high-tech companies need legislative protections to avert a financial catastrophe early next year, when computers using two-digit date fields might interpret "00" as 1900, not 2000, and malfunction or crash.
But the White House said yesterday that the president's senior advisers would recommend a veto. Opponents have argued that the bill would thwart consumers and small businesses from recovering economic losses in court and would upset state procedural laws.
Over the past year, some congressional Republicans and business lobbyists have hoped to use the Y2K issue to force Gore, who is running for president, to choose between two important Democratic constituencies--trial lawyers, who oppose liability limits, and Silicon Valley companies, which want to avoid costly class action suits.
Trial lawyers have been staunch Democratic supporters, but as Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) said Wednesday, "Everyone wants Silicon Valley contributions."
Republicans also want to counter what they perceive as a Democratic edge in the promotion of the "new economy," and next week's "high-tech summit" sponsored by the Joint Economic Committee will provide the GOP with an opportunity to show their support for the industry.
In addition to Gates, IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr., Intel Corp. President Craig R. Barrett, TechNet President Robert Katz, Adobe Systems Inc. Chairman John E. Warnock, Novell Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt, Business Software Alliance President Robert Holleyman and other software executives are scheduled to testify.
The Business Software Alliance, an industry trade group, plans to set aside time for the computer executives to meet with senators, Cabinet secretaries and other administration officials on Wednesday.
But some lobbying began yesterday. John Doerr, a high-tech venture capitalist and Gore supporter, met privately with Democratic senators, including Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.). Intel founder Andy Grove also met and called lawmakers, congressional aides said.
The GOP leadership's decision to delay the Y2K vote put Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the bill's chief sponsor, in an uncomfortable spot yesterday. On Wednesday, he had exhorted Senate colleagues to move swiftly on the bill: "Time is of the essence here. We cannot dally."
The delay came on a day when McCain, a GOP presidential contender, was already scheduled to leave in late afternoon for a New York fund-raiser sponsored by a communications company and for appearances on two television programs there.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Hollings, who have opposed the McCain bill, said they were ready to wrap up the legislation. "There's no reason why this bill could not be completed today," Daschle said.
CAPTION: Sen. Ernest F. Hollings wants bill wrapped up.
CAPTION: Sen. John McCain had said: "We cannot dally."