WASHINGTON – Senate legislation aimed at preventing lawyers from manipulating the system to make millions in class-action lawsuits (search) hit a wall Wednesday as lawmakers accused each other of using the bill for election-year politicking.
Action on the bill effectively stopped when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., put up barriers to all amendments after he failed to reach agreement with Democrats on which ones would be allowed.
"We are not prepared to have this bill become a magnet for every unrelated issue that is brought to the floor," Frist told Sen. Tom Daschle (search) of South Dakota, the Democratic leader.
The legislation would shift many class-action suits into federal court in an effort to stop lawyers from seeking out state courts that sometimes hand out huge damage awards.
The plan has passed the House in a different version and has the support of more than 60 senators.
The bill is before the full Senate with the legislative season already shortened by the upcoming political conventions and the election. Also, lawmakers from both parties see the bill as one of their last chances to get votes, in the form of amendments, on their big issues.
Democrats are demanding a vote on raising the minimum wage from the $5.15 an hour to $7 over the next few years. They also want a vote on fighting global warming and on extending an assault weapon ban that is to expire this year. Hawaii's two Democratic senators are pushing legislation that would recognize native Hawaiians as a governing entity.
Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., are trying to add a proposal that would give temporary legal status to undocumented farm workers.
Daschle, in his dialogue with Frist, said that limiting amendments, both those related and unrelated to the class-action issue, was "an absolute guarantee it will never get passed."
Craig said he had spent five years working on the migrant worker bill. "I am extremely disappointed this morning that we don't have the opportunity to offer it, that my leader has blocked me from doing so," he said.
Frist can go ahead with the bill only with a 60-vote majority. Several Democratic supporters of the bill said that vote would fail if amendments were not allowed.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a sponsor of the bill, said he had told Frist that "the one sure way to kill this bill is an attempt to close off debate."
Critics of the bill say moving cases into federal court would make it difficult for people to exercise their right to sue over corporate wrongdoing.
Supporters cite the phenomenon of venue shopping, where lawyers steer class-action cases to state courts that have earned a reputation for handing such large awards that defendants decide to settle rather than risk a trial.
In some cases lawyers take in millions in fees while the class-action members receive little more than coupons for future purchases.
Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, a North Carolina senator, is a former trial lawyer who strongly defends people's rights to sue to redress wrongs. Edwards made millions as a lawyer before winning a Senate seat.
"He's had a magnificent career representing people who deserve to be represented," said Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., a sponsor of the legislation. "It would be unfortunate in the extreme" if the legislation is used to attack him, Kohl said.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in a statement Wednesday, said Edwards' "trial lawyer agenda will kill jobs in this country."