- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

A group of Senate Democrats killed an effort yesterday to reform the judicial process governing massive class-action lawsuits that magnificently reward trial lawyers.

“Once again, we have been prevented from dealing with legal reform,” Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said after the vote.

A handful of Democrats joined Republicans this week in that vigorous lobbying of fellow senators to support the Class Action Reform Act, designed to usher more class-action lawsuits into the federal courts and prevent lawyers from guiding their cases to states where judges and juries are viewed as generous to plaintiffs.

Though they garnered eight Democrats and Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont independent who usually sides with Democrats, the reform effort failed by just one vote.

The 59-39 vote was on a procedural motion to bring the matter to the floor for debate, which requires 60 votes under Senate rules.

Even as the final moments of the vote ticked away, a couple of holdouts — including Mr. Jeffords — hadn’t voted and were grilled by senators on both sides of the issue in the well of the chamber.

In the end, Mr. Jeffords sided with Republicans, and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, stuck with her party.

Within moments of defeating the bill, several key Democrats seized the opportunity to offer themselves to become that crucial 60th vote under the right conditions in the near future.

“My vote was not that hard to get,” said Mrs. Landrieu, who added that she deliberately voted last to emphasize that point. “They could have easily gotten me.”

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, took right to the Senate floor and said he is “committed to class-action reform,” but opposed yesterday’s attempt at it because he hadn’t been more involved in the drafting of the bill.

“It seems to me if you are going to try to put a bill like this together, it takes sitting down,” he said. “It’s hard work.”

Yesterday’s vote prevents the Senate from even discussing the bill.

Mrs. Landrieu noted four specific areas of concern, all of which she acknowledged could be addressed through amendments.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and the bill’s co-sponsor, welcomed such amendments, but noted, “Nothing can be done until we’re allowed to proceed to consider the bill on the merits.”

A sharp critic of the Democratic filibusters against judicial nominations, Mr. Cornyn also suggested a bumper sticker that would read, “Obstruction: It’s not just for judges anymore.”

Absent from yesterday’s vote were Democratic Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts, who are running for president. Their offices later said they would have opposed the measure, meaning their votes would not have altered the outcome.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the chamber’s other Democratic presidential hopeful, did make yesterday’s vote despite missing several critical votes last week on a spending bill dealing with the war in Iraq.

He angered some fellow Democrats by voting with the Republicans for the measure.

“Isn’t it ironic how he couldn’t make it back for the votes on Iraq last week, but he did come back to vote against a bill very important to the Democratic base — civil rights groups, unions and trial lawyers,” said one Democratic Senate aide.

Republicans criticized their Democratic rivals as bought off by the trial lawyer industry, which is among the most generous to political campaigns. Of the $500 million given by lawyers to political campaigns since 1990, 72 percent has gone to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Mr. Edwards, who made millions during a successful career as a personal injury lawyer, is the country’s top recipient, having collected $6.7 million from lawyers in this election cycle alone, outstripping even President Bush by more than 2-to-1.

The reform effort lost just one Republican, Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama. Mr. Shelby, a lawyer, has gotten $617,920 in political contributions this election cycle from the legal industry, the sixth-highest amount among federal officeholders and tops among Republican legislators.

Democrats, in turn, said the effort is a sop to big business and the insurance industry, which has suffered from the cottage industry of class-action lawsuits that has cropped up in recent years.

Even Democrats acknowledged that yesterday’s vote could hurt them in future elections.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, who supported yesterday’s vote, urged fellow Democrats not to “play right into the hands” of Republicans by blocking a popular measure such as this.

“This is all about the next election,” Mrs. Landrieu said. “They want an issue. They want to go around the country saying Democrats are against business, Democrats don’t understand business, Democrats don’t want to create jobs.”

Republicans said they will not give up on class-action reform, but declined to say when they will bring it back up.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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