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Penalties decreased to get support for steroids bill

WASHINGTON -- Aiming for a Senate vote on steroid
legislation this week, lawmakers eased the proposed penalties
Tuesday, calling for a half-season suspension the first time an
athlete tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and John
McCain, R-Ariz., contains a one-season ban for a second steroid
offense and a lifetime ban for a third. It would apply to Major
League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL and baseball's minor leagues.

Several bills that would standardize steroid rules across U.S.
professional sports have been proposed in the House and Senate in
recent months. Most -- including the original version of the Senate
measure -- were based on the Olympic model: a two-year suspension
for a first drug offense, a lifetime ban for a second.

During a series of congressional hearings and in private
meetings with lawmakers, the leagues and their players' unions
objected to those penalties as too harsh. They also say they should
continue to set their own drug-testing rules and penalties through
collective bargaining.

"I think, seriously, that they are under the opinion that we
will not act," said Bunning, a former player elected to baseball's
Hall of Fame. "We tried to explain to them that we are going to
act because of their failure to do so, and I don't think it's sunk
in."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has signed on as a
co-sponsor, and Bunning said he expected it to pass as soon as late
Tuesday or Wednesday. Bunning planned to meet with House leaders
and sponsors of similar bills in that chamber.

Under current rules, a first failed drug test draws a 10-day ban
in Major League Baseball (roughly 1/16th of a season), a 10-game
ban in the NBA (about an eighth of a season), a four-game ban in
the NFL (a quarter of a season), and a 20-game ban in the NHL
(about a quarter of a season).

The House has three versions of steroid legislation. One
introduced by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., calls for a half-season
ban for a first offense.

"That we can agree on the penalties is very important,"
Stearns said in a telephone interview. "It's good news for trying
to pass a steroid bill."

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va.,
whose panel held a March 17 hearing with baseball stars Rafael
Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and others, proposed a bill
with the Olympic penalties. But Davis spokesman Dave Marin said the
congressman told Bunning and McCain he probably would accept the
three-tier penalty structure.

In April, commissioner Bud Selig proposed raising baseball's
penalties to a 50-game suspension for an initial positive test, a
100-game ban for a second offense, and a lifetime ban for a third.
Union head Donald Fehr rejected that proposal, and the sides have
been negotiating.

The primary disagreement between players and owners is the
length of the initial penalty, a baseball official familiar with
the talks said on condition of anonymity because the discussions
are secret.

The Senate bill would mandate that each player is tested at
least five times a year and would urge leagues to erase records
achieved with the help of performance-enhancing drugs.

The legislation would take effect a year after being signed into
law, giving the leagues that time to change their own steroid
policies and make them at least as tough as the law.

"Maybe -- maybe -- with a year to operate, to get their house in
order, they will act on their own," Bunning said.

The Senate bill is S. 1960. The House bills are H.R. 3084, H.R. 2829, H.R. 3942