WASHINGTON – Legislation that supporters said would target abuses of class-action lawsuits (search) was rejected by the Senate on Thursday, a victim of election-year skirmishing between the two parties.
Proponents of the Class Action Fairness Act (search), which would have moved many lawsuits from state to federal courts, failed to get the 60 votes needed to proceed, effectively killing it for this legislative year. The vote was 44-43.
The bill itself had strong backing, but hit an impasse when Republican leaders denied Democrats attempts to link it to several of their major legislative priorities.
Sen. Tom Carper (search), D-Del., a leading supporter, said he unsuccessfully proposed to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., that amendments be allowed on raising the minimum wage, global warming, mental health insurance and native Hawaiian rights. He also wanted assurances that a prescription drug importation bill would come up in September.
Frist said previously he was willing to take up the minimum wage issue but balked at other amendments not directly related to the class-action issue.
Democrats said the White House also wanted to avoid a vote this year on an immigration bill, sponsored by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Edward Kennedy (search), D-Mass., and backed by Hispanic groups, that would give temporary legal status to undocumented farm workers.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., one of several Democrats who backed the bill but voted against the measure Thursday to protest the amendment restrictions, said he was "still hopeful that cooler heads will prevail" and the bill could be resurrected later in the year.
Congress has been trying for years to overhaul class-action lawsuit procedures, particularly the practice of "forum shopping" where attorneys seek out courts known for handing out huge damage awards.
The House passed a version of the bill last year, and Senate supporters last December picked up three key Democratic votes after working out a compromise ensuring smaller lawsuits where the majority of plaintiffs and the defendant were from the same state would stay in state courts.
The bill also contains consumer protections directed at settlements where attorneys make millions in fees while class-action members end up getting little or actually losing money.
But it met strong opposition from consumer, civil rights and environmental groups who said it would delay or deny justice by forcing cases into overworked federal courts.
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Oklahoma Attorney General W.A. Drew Edmondson, writing on behalf of 11 other state attorneys general, told Senate leaders they opposed the bill because it "unduly limits the rights of individuals to seek redress for corporate wrongdoing in their state courts."
They acknowledged that some cases have led to substantial fees for lawyers and minimal benefits for plaintiffs, but the bill "fundamentally alters the basic principles of federalism, and if enacted would result in far greater harm than good."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a chief sponsor, said Democrats sabotaged the bill with amendment demands because of their close ties to trial lawyers. "This bill flies in the face of the demands of one of their greatest hard money constituent givers, and that is the trial lawyers of America," he said.
Several other GOP-led efforts this year to reduce what some regard as frivolous lawsuits have also died in the Senate. They included bills to limit awards in medical malpractice suits and protect gun manufacturers from liability suits.