NEW YORK (AP) – After repeated prodding by Congress, baseball players and owners are nearing an agreement that would toughen the penalties for using steroids.

Negotiators would not discuss the talks, which began last spring. Several player agents said in recent days that the sides were making progress toward a deal, though they did not have direct knowledge of the bargaining.

“Last I heard, the sides were really close,” Kansas City Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney said Monday.

Representatives of management and the union will head to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for a meeting with House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., to discuss their progress toward a stiffer testing agreement, Davis spokesman Dave Marin wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Davis’ committee held the March 17 hearing at which Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and other players and baseball officials testified – and where lawmakers soundly criticized the sport’s steroid penalties as too lax.

Baseball owners are to meet Thursday in Milwaukee. Last January, when the union and management revised their 2002 agreement, the changes were announced following an owners meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. Baseball executive vice president Rob Manfred and union general counsel Michael Weiner both declined to comment on the talks. Commissioner Bud Selig said last week that he was “hopeful that baseball can solve this problem itself.”

The penalty for a first positive test was said by several people to be the largest obstacle to an agreement.

Selig proposed in April that the penalties be 50 games for a first positive, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third, up from 10 days, 30 days and 60 days under the deal that began this year.

In September, union head Donald Fehr countered with 20 games, 75 games and a penalty set by the commissioner.

And last week, Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and John McCain, R-Ariz., revised their proposed legislation to soften the penalties, which now call for a half-season ban for a first positive, one season for a second and a lifetime penalty for a third.

Their bill would apply to Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL and baseball’s minor leagues.

At a Sept. 28 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, McCain scolded Fehr in particular for not having reached a deal on a new steroids policy.

“We’re at the end here, and I don’t want to do it, but we need an agreement soon. It’s not complicated. It’s not complicated. All sports fans understand it,” McCain said at the hearing. “I suggest you act – and act soon.”

In addition to the Bunning-McCain bill in the Senate, three pieces of legislation have been proposed in the House, including one by Davis.

Blum reported from New York; Fendrich from Washington.

AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.

AP-ES-11-14-05 1924EST

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