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Manufacturers Get a Helping Hand

THE United States Senate voted on Wednesday to approve the National Competitiveness Act, a $1.9 billion government program designed to help small and mid-sized manufacturers produce high-technology products.

Clinton administration officials heaved a sigh of relief when the measure passed the Senate by a vote of 59-40; it was expected to be much closer. The act is the cornerstone of the administration's national technology policy, which includes linking Americans to the world's most advanced communications system - the so-called ``information highway.''

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The bill also doubles the number of manufacturing centers around the country, in urban as well as rural areas.

Picking and choosing

The legislation has stirred controversy on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers who fought for its defeat have warned that doling out government assistance promotes a system of ``picking winners and losers.''

Republicans led the charge that the federal money would not be dispensed on the basis of merit, but rather on the political connections of companies.

The bill gives the US Commerce Department the authority to identify which companies are eligible for government money.

Government has ``a unique, essential role in making sure that the private sector is involved in developing new technologies, turning them into commercial products, exporting and selling those products, and putting people to work in jobs that pay good wages,'' says Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, a champion of the act and author of a supporting amendment.

Help for future Thomas Edisons

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``I'm particularly happy that I beat back a challenge on my venture-capital amendment, which will help small- and medium-sized businesses get the critical start-up funding they need,'' Mr. Rockefeller says. ``If Thomas Edison wanted to market the light bulb today, he'd have to light up Shea Stadium before backers would be willing to lend him the money. This legislation will help our future Thomas Edisons.''

Others are skeptical.

``People in Washington are operating under the false assumption that start-up firms and venture capitalists want government help. What we want is for government to leave us alone,'' says a Midwestern financier who services ``high-tech, early-stage'' firms.

``None of the entrepreneurs I know have any confidence in government's ability to perform well, and nobody is looking for government as a business partner,'' he adds.

The bill now proceeds to a conference committee with the House of Representatives, which passed its own version of the act last year, a $1.5 billion spending program.

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