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Conference Committee Plays Musical Chairs<@VM>H-1B Bill Assumes Various Shapes<@VM>Internet Regulation Rumor Is Just That

Sen. Trent Lott

By Anne Gallagher

Senators continue to bicker over the makeup of the members who will serve on a conference committee to resolve differences with the House on electronic signature legislation, and the delay is making the high-tech industry impatient.

The House named its conferees weeks ago to finalize the bill, which aims to give an e-signature entered on the Internet the same legal weight as a traditional paper signature. Approval of such legislation is expected to be a boon to e-commerce.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, S.D., got into a verbal scuffle on the Senate floor March 7 over the conference. Democrats refuse to name conferees unless Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, gets a slot.

Democrats want Leahy on the panel to protect language on consumer protection that he inserted into the Senate bill last year. But Leahy faces opposition from some senators who do not believe the e-signature issue falls under the jurisdiction of Judiciary.

Meanwhile, a number of IT groups have written lawmakers urging them to stop arguing and move the bill to conference.

"Now, with a tight legislative calendar, it is imperative that the conference begins as soon as possible so Congress can complete work on its most important high-tech legislative initiative this year," stated the Coalition for E-Authentication, which comprises U.S. e-commerce companies, in a March 2 letter to Daschle. "It is time to complete the conferee selection so the conference can move forward."More versions of H-1B Visa bills that are designed to increase the number of high-tech workers into the United States from other countries are surfacing on Capitol Hill, among them one by a group of legislators called the New Democrat Coalition.

The group's version of the bill is expected to both increase the annual H-1B Visa cap, which stands at 115,000 this year, and direct that funding be provided for U.S.-based educational programs to train skilled workers domestically.

Another version sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, would raise the Visa cap by 45,000 this year, up to 160,000, and allow 107,500 workers in 2001.

Another Senate bill proposes boosting the cap by 300,000 over the next three years.Commerce Department officials have informed information technology industry officials that they have no plans to impose federal regulation on the Internet, despite loose talk to the contrary.

Rumors were circulating in March within the IT industry that linked Commerce to proposals made by the Federal Trade Commission, an independent agency, to regulate Internet advertising.

The Information Technology Association of America sent a letter to the department that said regulating privacy and advertisers could undermine the ability of providers to offer free content and access because it would encourage Web sites to offer the services on a subscription-only basis. Commerce officials later told Arlington, Va.-based ITAA they were not advocating the regulations.

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