- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 8, 2004

One day after Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry picked a personal-injury lawyer to be his running mate, Senate Republicans took up a bill aimed at curbing class-action lawsuits.

Favored by the business community, which largely backs President Bush, the tort-reform measure is strenuously opposed by the trial lawyers who have bankrolled the political career of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards.

The bill — which would limit the amount of money trial lawyers reap in cases where plaintiffs get only coupons or other nominal awards — is one of several major legislative fights that Republicans hope to use to tar the Democratic ticket as beholden to trial lawyers.

“They like to talk about two Americas,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, in reference to Mr. Edwards’ campaign theme.

“Well, there’s one America where personal-injury lawyers make literally billions of dollars off these court cases, and there’s the other America where plaintiffs get pennies on the dollar and lose their access to medical care,” he said.

In addition to the class-action-lawsuit bill, Republicans plan to renew their efforts to eliminate frivolous medical-malpractice lawsuits and hammer out a settlement that would end a spate of lawsuits in recent years against companies dealing with asbestos.

On the Senate floor yesterday, backers of the bill portrayed a system run amok by lawyers, who are poised only to gain more power if a Kerry-Edwards ticket prevails in November.

“Even when the purveyors have law degrees on their walls, snake oil is snake oil,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota fought vigorously to stop the bill from moving by demanding that senators be permitted to add amendments unrelated to class-action lawsuits.

Mr. Daschle accused Republicans of trying to “shove this down our throats” and said he opposes the bill because it would shift many of the court cases from state courts — where lawyers shop for generous juries — into the federal courts.

“I find it amazingly ironic that those on the other side who claim to be advocates of states’ rights would say, ‘No, not in this case,’” he said. “In this case, we take away the rights of states and put them at the federal level.”

By last night, all negotiations with Mr. Daschle on amendments had broken down and Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, filed a “cloture motion” to end debate and force a final vote on the measure.

That motion requires 60 votes for approval and is scheduled for tomorrow.

In October, such a motion came up just one vote short, on a 59-39 vote.

Since then, Republicans have won three Democratic converts — Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut — by making changes to the bill.

Mr. Schumer and Mr. Dodd spoke in favor of the bill yesterday, but it wasn’t clear whether they would defy Mr. Daschle and side with Republicans on the procedural maneuver.

Absent from the October vote were Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, who were out campaigning against one another for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Mr. Edwards already has voted against the bill, in a committee vote. And although the Massachusetts senator has not taken a position on class-action reform, Kerry strategist Tad Devine said yesterday that as a team, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards were proud to fight for people’s access to the justice system.

During yesterday’s debate, the two men were out on their first joint campaign tour through the key electoral states of Ohio and Florida. But they were not entirely out of the picture.

As Republicans told story after story of lawyers seeking “jackpot justice” at the expense of a healthy economy, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, rose to defend Mr. Edwards as a “business Democrat,” not the “wild-eyed liberal” portrayed by Republicans.

In the House chamber, Republicans were beating the same drum, framing the debate about lawsuit reform in terms of the economy.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said, “Senator Edwards’ trial lawyer agenda will kill jobs in this country.”

He called the more than 2 percent of the gross domestic product eaten up by litigation annually a “tort tax” that costs each American $809 a year.

“If John Edwards and John Kerry take the helm, how much more will trial lawyers cost our economy?” Mr. Hastert said. “That is a question every working American should ask.”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said he is planning a “lawsuit abuse week” to trot out as many as six Republican efforts to go after needless litigation.

“Senator Edwards, call your office,” Mr. DeLay told reporters yesterday.

Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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