A rebellious Senate blocked passage of legislation Thursday to limit punitive damages in all civil lawsuits, dealing a stunning blow to Republican efforts to overhaul the nation’s civil litigation system.
Republicans vowed to salvage at least some of the bill but conceded they may have to settle for curbs on product-liability awards, as originally proposed before they expanded the legislation to cover all civil litigation.
In an embarrassing defeat for Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., Republicans fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to cut off debate on the measure and force a vote on final passage. They failed even to get a majority, losing by votes of 46-53 and 47-52 in back-to-back roll calls.
The votes came shortly after President Clinton had issued a strongly worded statement, saying the bill might be called the “Drunk Drivers Protection Act” and vowing to veto it unless major changes are made. “At the least, it (the Senate) should remove damage caps on lawsuits involving drunk drivers, murderers, rapists and abusers of women and children, despoilers of the envionment like the Exxon Valdez and perpetrators of terrorist acts and hate crimes,” Clinton said.
The president said he favors “product-liability reform at the federal level” but said it “must fairly balance the interests of consumers with those of manufacturers and sellers.”
Republicans denied that Clinton’s statement had influenced the vote but acknowledged he had scored some political points.
The House has approved sweeping legislation, as promised in the GOP’s “Contract with America,” that went even further than anything attempted by Senate Republicans, including putting limits on pain-and-suffering awards. Thursday’s vote appeared to reinforce expectations that many of the most controversial items in the contract face serious trouble in the Senate.
The Senate has rejected the House-approved constitutional amendment to force a balanced budget and is divided over other issues, ranging from easing government regulation to cutting taxes.
As originally introduced, the bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., proposed only to limit punitive damages in cases against manufacturers of faulty and dangerous products, a goal pursued by many lawmakers over the past decade.
But it was broadened in several ways during two weeks of debate, including the approval Wednesday of a proposal by Dole to limit punitive damages in all civil cases to twice the level of other awards, including lost wages, medical bills and pain and suffering.
Dole’s proposal, which had been approved by only a 51-49 margin Wednesday, is among the most likely casualties of Thursday’s vote.
Several Republicans said Dole’s proposal would be among the first to go. Asked if Dole’s plan would survive, Majority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., said, “I doubt it.”
Dole appeared no more optimistic. “Mine is not at the top of the list” for survival, he quipped to reporters.