House Debates Civil Suit Reforms Corporations, Lawyers Battle Over Easing Of Liability Laws

Marching into the more controversial reaches of the “Contract With America,” the Republican-controlled House argued Monday over business-backed legislation to alter the civil legal system. “Simply too extreme,” the White House labeled some of the proposals.

A high-priced lobbying campaign pitting corporate interests against trial lawyers - heavy contributors to Democratic candidates - played out in the background. Backers of the measures say they are designed to discourage frivolous lawsuits.

The measures generally would make it easier to defend product-liability and securities-fraud cases and they pre-empt state laws by creating a federal limit on so-called punitive damages in most lawsuits.

They also would provide incentives to settle suits out of court under a modified “loser pays” system that could require even a person who wins a case to bear a portion of the other side’s attorney fees and costs.

“Common sense legal reform,” Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, termed the measures, borrowing the phrase from the GOP’s campaign “Contract With America.”

“This isn’t for Main Street, it’s for Wall Street,” countered Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., arguing that consumers would be placed at a disadvantage in trying to grapple with large corporations.

Whatever the fate of the measures, they marked the latest phase in the Republicans’ rush through the campaign manifesto that helped them win a majority in last November’s elections. Awaiting floor action next week is a constitutional amendment placing term limits on lawmakers, although, unlike the other measures, it seems headed for defeat.

On other issues, the House Ways and Means Committee has all but completed action on a fundamental overhaul of the nation’s welfare laws.

And the final item on the Republican program - tax cuts and a series of spending cuts to finance them - are expected to reach the floor at the end of March or in early April.

Senators on Monday opened debate on a relatively non-controversial measure to reduce federal paperwork burdens.

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