WASHINGTON - Digital signature legislation took a major step forward Wednesday as the Senate chose 17 negotiators to seek a compromise with the House.

Commerce Committee members make up a majority of the team. They are led by Chairman John McCain of Arizona, ranking Democrat Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, and the bill's sponsor, Spencer Abraham, R-Mich.

Three Banking Committee members were named, too: Chairman Phil Gramm of Texas, ranking Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, and Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah. Rounding out the team are three Judiciary Committee members: Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, and Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. The House named its five negotiators six weeks ago.

But the legislation - which has stalled because of a White House veto threat and partisan bickering since the House and Senate passed differing versions in November - still faces an uphill battle.

Both bills would establish the validity of contracts "signed" online with electronic codes known as digital signatures. But the House bill also would permit financial services companies to make mortgage and other disclosures required by consumer protection laws electronically, instead of on paper. Sens. Gramm and Abraham have reportedly drafted an alternative similar to the House bill, but Democrats are expected to push for more consumer protections.

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