Congressional Republicans moved yesterday to force a showdown with President Clinton over the Year 2000 computer bug, hoping to present Vice President Gore with his own Y2K problem.
House GOP leaders agreed to accept the Senate's version of a bill to limit liability for damages resulting from Y2K computer failures, clearing the way for its final passage. But Clinton repeated his intention to veto the bill, a move Republicans believe will hurt Gore's credibility with the high-tech community in the 2000 presidential campaign.
Congress quickly erupted in partisan bickering over the digital deadlock, which could stall time-sensitive efforts to help firms fix Y2K problems without fear of frivolous lawsuits. Republicans accused Democrats of scuttling reform to appease trial lawyers. Democrats accused Republicans of refusing to compromise in order to play political games.
On Tuesday, the Year 2000 Coalition of more than 100 business groups had implored House leaders to work with Clinton to pass legislation he could sign, warning that "a legislative process that terminates in a veto would be viewed as a complete failure, and would pose substantial risk to the American economy."
But John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said Clinton will bear responsibility if nothing passes: "The president needs to make a choice, whether he's going to support the trial lawyers or support the engine that produces the jobs in this country."
Programmers around the world are scrambling to debug computers with two-digit date fields, warning that they may interpret "00" as 1900 instead of 2000 and wreak financial havoc. High-tech groups and other business organizations have lobbied to limit Y2K lawsuits, arguing that without assurances firms may be reluctant to help fix the problem.
The House passed strong restrictions on Y2K lawsuits on May 12, and the Senate followed with a less sweeping version on June 15. But Clinton has said that while he wants to protect companies from frivolous Year 2000 suits, he believes both versions of the bill extend beyond the Y2K problem into broader tort reform issues, capping punitive damages in too many cases and forcing too many class action suits into federal court.
Yesterday, House leaders indicated that they would agree to the slightly weaker Senate bill, but that they would not compromise any further to prevent a Clinton veto. A spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said the House is likely to vote on the Y2K legislation early next week after the House and Senate correct one amendment Republicans believe could void financial services contracts. An aide to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said the Senate probably will pass the amended bill early next week.
"We realize we're only six months away from January 1," said Michelle Davis, the Armey spokeswoman. "You would think that urgency would get the president's attention."
But Clinton spokesman Jake Siewert said the legislative maneuvering soon will be moot, because Clinton will make good on his promise to veto the Senate bill. "We will veto any bill that attempts to accomplish broader tort reform issues by wrapping them in Y2K legislation," he said. "The Republicans have to make a choice: Do they want a bill that we can sign into law, or do they want a political issue?"
Silicon Valley is a mother lode for political fund-raising; in the 1997-98 election cycle, the computer and electronics industries gave $4.3 million to Democrats and $5.5 million to Republicans. Just last night, Gore held a fund-raiser in San Francisco, pulling in $600,000 from a mostly high-tech crowd, but GOP leaders hope the Y2K issue will whittle away Gore's support among digital-world CEOs. Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said the vice president agrees with Clinton on this issue, calling the Senate bill "overreaching and anti-consumer."
In recent months, congressional Republicans have tried to embarrass Gore on a variety of issues, from his support for a space satellite designed to film the Earth to his claim to have invented the Internet. Yesterday, Lehane noted that their decision to pass a Y2K bill they know Clinton will veto came just one day after they met with GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush. "It's pretty obvious that the Republicans are playing partisan politics these days," he said.
But House Republicans emphasized that they are making a number of concessions by accepting the more modest Senate Y2K bill, such as limiting a $250,000 cap on punitive damages to small businesses. They said the real cause of the impasse is the trial lawyers, who gave $41.7 million to Democrats in the last cycle, and only $16.1 million to Republicans.
"The final product that will be sent to the president represents a strong compromise by this Congress," said Trey Hardin, spokesman for Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). "He ought to sign it."