Planning the Post Holiday Grind

Posted February 13, 2004 at 6:10pm

By Emily Pierce ROLL CALL STAFF After taking this week off to celebrate both Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day, the Senate will trade in the regional sparring of last week’s highway bill for some good ol’ partisan squabbling over whether trial lawyers

or doctors should reign supreme in malpractice lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the House might try solving the problem of what to do if a lot Members die in a terrorist attack by passing a measure to ensure the continuity of Congress should such a tragedy occur. A pension measure, a bill to protect babies in the womb and a patent bill may also be on tap for the week they come back. However, the House schedule has not officially been set yet.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) hopes to start off the week of Feb. 23 on what GOP Senators are calling “legal reform issues.” That means having what will likely be an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a Democratic filibuster of a bill to limit the malpractice liability of obstetrician/gynecologists and then possibly turning to a bill to limit the liability of gun manufacturers.

That’s the plan unless Frist first finds success in pushing through a revamped and scaled-down energy policy bill early in the week. A deal with Democrats last week gave Frist the opening he needs to avert a filibuster, but the timing of the energy measure is still up in the air, considering that he will have to first figure out how many amendments the mammoth measure may draw as well as how much floor time will be needed. If it looks like the energy debate will take longer than a week, he could have a scheduling mess on his hands.

Frist has already promised Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) the week of March 1 for debate on a bill to roll back some corporate tax breaks in order to head off the European Union’s threatened sanctions on American goods. The timing of the bill already cuts uncomfortably close to the day when the World Trade Organization has given the EU the go-ahead to impose sanctions — March 1.

But who knows, this energy debate may not take the three or four weeks that is common to its predecessors. After all, the compromise does not include controversial language that would have insulated the makers of a gasoline additive known as MTBE from lawsuits, and it has much less of the so-called “pork,” because it was trimmed down from $31 billion to nearly $14 billion.

Of course, even if Frist succeeds in passing a new energy measure, he’ll probably need the White House to bully House GOP leaders into bringing the measure up in their chamber, considering House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has already made it known that he doesn’t take kindly to the Senate’s rewrite, especially the elimination of the MTBE language.

If it appears the energy debate isn’t shaping up well, Frist will likely turn to his original plan for the week — a series of measures that allow the GOP to take take baby steps in their quest to limit the monetary damage awards in civil suits.

“We’re going to be dealing with issue-specific liability reform, which is another way to skin that cat,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Because Frist couldn’t get a broad-based medical malpractice liability bill through the floor last fall, Senate Republicans are now focused more narrowly on suits against OB/GYNs. They hope it will strike a nerve among Democrats, because Republicans blame high malpractice insurance rates on the lack of qualified doctors in some areas to deliver babies. The GOP says it’s an issue of women’s access to health care.

“Hopefully, this will bring it home to the American people that they’re against the safety of American women’s health,’ said Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who added, “If that passes, then I think we want to do neurosurgeons next.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), however, is having none of it.

“I think they’re trying to take an area where they believe the problem is most serious, and they want to isolate it, but the issue is the same,” said Daschle. “We want to address medical malpractice. … The answer is real insurance reform. We have examples from all over the country showing that caps [on damage awards] have not served to bring down the price of insurance.”

Daschle also predicted that Republicans would not get the 60 votes they need on their Feb. 24 vote to limit debate, or invoke cloture, on the bill.

Frist might have better luck, and a more successful strategy, for pushing through the bill to ban civil suits against gun and ammunition manufacturers for crimes committed with their products.

With a total of 54 co-sponsors — including Daschle, Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and eight other moderate Democrats — the bill pushed by Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was already well on its way to overcoming the 60-vote threshold.

But to make sure they get there, Frist hopes to make a deal with Democrats who oppose the bill to add some of their pet gun projects. For example, Republicans, who generally eschew further restrictions on guns, may look the other way if Democrats try to add a renewal of the assault weapons ban or an amendment to close the so-called gun show loophole, said one senior Senate GOP aide.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who opposes the liability bill, will likely offer an assault weapons ban amendment regardless of any deal, said her spokesman, Howard Gantman. However, Gantman said Feinstein has not yet been approached by Republican leaders and has not made any decisions on whether she would be willing to accept such an agreement.

The House, as usual, will likely have a much easier time with its agenda when they return from the recess.

One contender for action next week is the continuity-of-Congress legislation that would require special elections to be held if the Speaker certifies that more than 100 vacancies exist.

The House also hopes to return to a measure to raise patent registration fees after a squabble last week between appropriators and authorizers over where the proceeds would go was finally resolved. The “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” is also a good bet to get floor time next week.

And though the pension reform bill sparked House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) to call the Capitol Police on his panel’s Democrats last year, don’t expect to see uniformed officers on the House floor when the chamber takes up the legislation, possibly next week.