In what is a bad omen for the House GOP's "Contract with America," Senate leaders were unable Thursday to break a filibuster on a bill to limit huge lawsuit awards - thanks to a last-minute attack by President Clinton.
That forced Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole to abandon seeking a broad overhaul of the civil justice system similar to a House-passed bill that was part of the Contract with America."We're going to pass it ultimately, but we're going to have to scale it back," Hatch said Friday after the Senate voted twice Thursday not to cut off debate on the bill - essentially killing it unless big changes are made.
Such moves to limit debate require 60 votes - a three-fifths majority. But GOP leaders failed to win even a simple majority, winning no more than 47 votes in the two attempts.
The votes came shortly after President Clinton vowed to veto the bill as now written. He called it the "Drunk Drivers Protection Act of 1995," saying it would protect them, rapists, child abusers and polluters from paying hefty civil penalties.
Hatch and Dole have said it would help end frivolous lawsuits by limiting too-large awards that they say drive up the cost of goods and services.
Hatch, Dole and others were negotiating Friday on how exactly to trim down the bill to attract enough votes to cut off debate and pass the bill.
"It's clear that if we have just a product liability reform bill, we will get the 60 votes for cloture (or cutting off debate)," Hatch said. He added that a trimmed down version will likely be presented on Monday.
That reverses the direction that Hatch and Dole had been taking during the previous nine days of debate on the bill.
They had pushed several amendments to broaden the original Senate bill by Sens. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., which proposed only to limit punitive damages in cases against manufacturers of dangerous and faulty products.
For example, a Dole-Hatch amendment on Wednesday that barely passed 51-49 would limit punitive damages in all cases - not just faulty product cases - to twice the level of other awards for such things as lost wages, pain and suffering and medical bills.
Because of its narrow margin of victory, that amendment was expected to be discarded. Also threatened was limiting punitive damages in medical malpractice suits.
Hatch said both measures were "reasonable parts of any tort reform, but getting just two Democratic votes shows how much they (Democrats) are against even minimal reform. Of course, we lost a lot of Republican votes too."
Hatch complained, "Liberals still control the Senate. If you count the liberal Republicans plus all the Democrats, they have at least 51 votes."
He added that portends poorly for other portions of the Contract with America. "All portions of the contract have had a much tougher time in the Senate because we are so evenly split here."
Even though Hatch himself is a trial lawyer, he blasted others with that profession saying they are fighting reform and will be the only ones to benefit.
"Who has the largest stake in maintaining in place this out-of-control civil justice system?" Hatch asked. "Some of our nation's trial lawyers."
Hatch added, "Who else could defend a $38 million punitive damage verdict over the handling of a car loan? Who else could defend a system where liability concerns impede volunteer organizations and are so costly to them?"