Legal Wrangling

This is a partial transcript from "Your World with Neil Cavuto," February 9, 2005, that was edited for clarity.

NEIL CAVUTO, HOST: You want to get the economy to soar, get the lawsuits to stop. Well, not exactly that simple or that trite, but if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has his way, he will give it a shot. The senator says that reform the legal system and the ease with which so many can sue for so much and we'll all be better off. With us on FOX — and only on FOX — the Senate majority leader himself, to explain.

Senator Frist, good to have you. Thank you.

SEN. BILL FRIST, R-TENN., MAJORITY LEADER: Neil, great to be with you this afternoon.

CAVUTO: Tell me what you are trying to do here?

FRIST: Well, it's pretty clear, the 109th Congress just kicked back in two weeks ago, and the number one agenda item, what's on the floor beneath me as I speak now is just that, tort reform. The tort issues, the legal lawsuit abuse issues are huge. They're before us. They affect our global competitiveness as we all know, but in addition, they're just a basic fairness point that has to be addressed. We're addressing it on the floor of the United States Senate in class action reform, and that is step number one.

CAVUTO: One of the other steps is to shift a lot of these cases out of state/local-type courts to the federal court system, but a lot of federal judges, sir, said they can't handle it, and I believe Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist has said pretty much the same thing. What do you say?

FRIST: Neil, let me say up front, I believe we're going to be successful in passing this bill Thursday with strong bipartisan support. And to me, that's very encouraging. The bill does two things. It addresses forum shopping, which is your point, plus the overall equity or fairness in the system.

Right now, we have too many lawyers/attorneys who are channeling lawsuits to lawyer-friendly state courts. Not all lawsuits — there's a lawsuit filed every two seconds in this country. A total cost of $845 billion is just way too much money. It should be maybe half of that. Step number one will be able to take these forum shoppers and say, they're going to go to federal court.

The second thing this bill does very quickly, it looks at the whole issue of fairness and equity. Right now, we have these class action lawsuits where the claimants or the plaintiff out there receive maybe just a little coupon, but the trial lawyers or the lawyers themselves are walking away with the lion's share of the money invested. We want to make sure the people who are hurt or have been hurt get the money and not just the lawyers.

CAVUTO: Are you afraid, sir, that as a former doctor, present medical doctor, that people will look at this, oh, he's just trying to protect his own?

FRIST: No. You know, I don't. If things hadn't gotten so out of control and so bad — and again, our tort system is the strongest in the world. And we're going to protect that. That gives us all great pride. The problem is it's costing every man, woman and child $845 a year. And we know that a certain amount of that is going to frivolous lawsuits, or waste, or it's being channeled to the lawyers and not the claimants.

Our objective is to keep a strong tort system but just to return that equity. This issue has to deal with class action lawsuits. Other agenda items that we are likely to see in the future in this Congress is addressing bankruptcy, which I hope to follow on the floor in a couple of weeks. Address the issues of asbestos, a lot of attention in the last few days. And then the field that does affect me directly, and that is medical liability.

CAVUTO: But could I ask you something, Senator, with the best of intentions do you think the eye is off the ball here when the president is pushing Social Security reform and then all of a sudden this is getting side-tracked here?

FRIST: No, it doesn't. As you know, Social Security is going to require engaging the American people. We have got a problem, a major problem that's inevitable, driven by this tidal wave of demographics that people just can't hide from. They can't stick their heads in the sand.

CAVUTO: Absolutely, but why get into this tort reform thing, as important as it is, sir, when the president is saying this is priority one right now?

FRIST: Well, first of all, there are a bunch of priorities. The president in his State of the Union mentioned tort reform as a major priority. We have got health care, we have got education, we have got the war on terror, we have got Social Security, we have got tax reform, we have got energy policy, all of which we have to address at the same time.

So, what I do as majority leader is take to the floor those issues that are ready to come to the floor. We have got bipartisan support. It's a major initiative for the president of the United States. It's important to our economy. And we're going to have it done within 24 hours.

Social Security we address every single day. We're doing it in town meetings. We are doing it in legislative sessions. That won't be ready to come to the floor for weeks, if not months. We're going to have to engage the American people more. But that is a huge priority as well.

CAVUTO: The president has been engaging people with this notion that he can make permanent the tax cuts that were enacted some years back. How confident are you that that's going to happen, and how soon would you take that up?

FRIST: A major initiative is to make those tax cuts permanent. And if you look at dividends and current policy, a goal is going to be to extend those in the future. Capital gains, a goal to extend those. We need to muster strong support. You have it among Republicans in the United States Senate. We need to appeal to our colleagues across the aisle. And with that, I believe that we will be successful. We'll be addressing it on the floor of the United States Senate in mid-March, about that second week in March. We need to continue to build support for that, we'll do just that.

CAVUTO: Where does the Chertoff nomination stand in homeland security, can you update me on that?

FRIST: Great question. And I was just talking to the Democratic leader. Let me just say at the outset, I'm working very closely with the Democratic leader. And it's been a pleasure to work with him as we move the agenda forward...

CAVUTO: Wait a minute, it's been a pleasure?

FRIST: It's been a pleasure.


FRIST: It's been a pleasure. You know, people need to understand, we're 100 people working together. And Democrat or Republican, we have different principles. We have a different approach. We have different goals. But ultimately the mission is to move the America forward.

CAVUTO: So what has he told you on Chertoff?

FRIST: Yes. The Chertoff nomination is out of committee as of two nights ago. It will likely be the early part of next week. My goal is to complete class action reform by the end tomorrow, continue to negotiate with the Democrats and hopefully get the Chertoff nomination done by very early next week.

CAVUTO: And when it comes to some of these issues that the president wants to see in Social Security, are you for private accounts, and in order to bring Democrats on board, would you entertain or would Republicans entertain raising the threshold above the $90,000 figure?

FRIST: Well, personally and from a leadership stand it point, absolutely I believe in personal accounts, personal retirement accounts.

CAVUTO: How about the threshold, raising the threshold?

FRIST: And that's not just me. I think we have to make a better case to the American people of how valuable these accounts are. Everything else from my standpoint is on the table...

CAVUTO: Wait a minute, sir. Including raising the threshold figure?

FRIST: Including raising the threshold. I don't want to increase payroll taxes, but I would say right now at this standpoint that everything should be on the table. And.

CAVUTO: Have Democrats told you, sir, that if you raise that $90,000 threshold, they might entertain the private account thing?

FRIST: You know, no, no, and to me, the Democrats have drawn a line in the sand too early. They're not willing to even admit there's a problem. So our objective, what we need to do, and you need to do, and our media need to do is to at least admit there's a problem. The Democrats don't admit there's a problem yet. There's obviously a problem that we're not going to run from and we're going to address it head on.

CAVUTO: Are you going to run for president in four years?

FRIST: No — you know, everybody asks that question because I'm the majority leader and I have got two years to focus here. And my goal is to run the United States Senate.

CAVUTO: Senator Bill Frist, a real pleasure, sir, thank you.

FRIST: It has been a pleasure, you bet.

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