President Bush said yesterday he is "passionate" about protecting the business community from "frivolous lawsuits" and will work hard to get legal reform through Congress, including making the issue a topic of his State of the Union address next month.
Mr. Bush was the star attraction of a two-day economic summit filled with speakers who praised the president's first-term economic record and touted his new, aggressive agenda of tort reform, restructuring Social Security and making permanent the tax cuts he pushed through Congress in the last four years.
Mr. Bush chose to sit in on the panel discussing liability reform, a favorite topic of his stretching from his days as governor of Texas in the 1990s through his re-election campaign this year.
"I told you then and I'm going to tell you again: This is a priority issue for not only me, but for a lot of people in the Senate," Mr. Bush said, predicting an easy road in the House for restrictions on class-action suits against businesses and doctors, but a struggle in the Senate.
"It is being blocked by a few in the United States Senate, and the trial bar has made this the number one issue for them," he said. "We cannot have the legal system to be a legal lottery.
"We want the legal system to be fair and balanced so people can get good health care, so small businesses can afford to stay in business, so we don't hear these horrible stories about someone drug through this class-action meat grinder that has caused [many] to go out of business," the president said to applause from his hand-picked panel.
Democrats in Congress called the summit all but pointless because Mr. Bush was not likely to hear any opinions that didn't match his own.
"Unfortunately, day one of the administration's 'economic summit' seems little more than a collection of like-minded individuals who are intent on pushing a preordained partisan agenda rather than conducting an open, honest dialogue on issues that require broad bipartisan support," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.
South Carolina Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said he wished the summit was like the "real conference" President Clinton convened with Republicans and Democrats alike in 1997.
"That was a genuine bipartisan effort," Mr. Spratt said. "There has been no effort by this administration to reach out to involve us in the process. We haven't even had an invitation to a conference like this, much less to a real working conference where there is a true exchange of ideas and give and take and bargaining. It's simply missing, and there's no indication that there's going to be anything like that this year."
After hearing legal horror stories from a small-business owner, law professors, the CEO of Home Depot, a doctor and a pregnant woman who struggled to find anyone who would take the legal risk of delivering her baby, Mr. Bush promised to push hard for tort reform.
"I am passionate on the subject because I want America to be the best place in the world for people to find work or to raise their family or to get good health care," he said. "And I can assure you all that I intend to make this a priority issue, as I stand before Congress, when I give the State of the Union, and as I talk to leaders of the Congress about what I think ought to be done in the upcoming legislative session."
The first day of the economic conference -- held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center three blocks from the White House -- was opened with a brief speech by Vice President Dick Cheney, who credited Mr. Bush's four tax cuts in four years for righting an economy that slid into recession in 2001 and was damaged further by the September 11 attacks.
"We've created an environment in which firms and entrepreneurs are more willing to take risk, innovate, invest and hire more workers," Mr. Cheney said. "If we stay on that path, the years ahead will bring even greater progress and prosperity for the people that we all serve."
Mr. Cheney's comments were followed by a string of sunny economic assessments and praise for Mr. Bush delivered by some of the president's most prominent political supporters.
"I'm pleased to say the economy is now in very good shape," said Harvard economics professor Martin Feldstein, a Republican who is eyeing a presidential appointment to succeed Alan Greenspan as the head of the Federal Reserve Board.
Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli, a Bush supporter who raised $3.2 million for the Republican National Committee this year, told the president, "There is no better person than you" to lead the economy and the fight for tort reform.
"We're tickled to death that your exodus from Washington has been postponed for four years," Mr. Nardelli said.
A priority for the administration will be cajoling Congress to make permanent Mr. Bush's tax cuts that are all set to expire in 2010.
Treasury Secretary John W. Snow told CNN after convening one of the day's panels that he is confident Mr. Bush will include a measure to make his tax cuts permanent in the first budget he submits in February.
He said the president will also submit a plan to simplify and reform the federal tax code before the end of the year.
"I don't have a particular timetable," Mr. Snow said, but indicated the plan will be out "as soon as possible" so it can wind through Congress in 2005.
Mr. Bush indicated yesterday that he will largely bypass Democrats in Congress -- which is easier in the House with the Republicans' 30-seat majority, but harder in the Senate, where the Republicans only will have a 55-44 margin with one Democrat-leaning independent.
Another major domestic- agenda item in the second term will be Social Security reform, which will be the main topic of conversation as the summit closes today.
The White House hasn't outlined details of Mr. Bush's plan, but a linchpin will be allowing younger workers to opt out of Social Security, which will begin to run a deficit in 2018 and will be insolvent by 2042.
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