Congress crosses partisan divides on some issues

Agreement on moving class-action suits to federal courts indicates bridge building between parties, for now.

For all the talk of epic battles to come on judicial nominations and Social Security, you might think that nothing is going to happen in the 109th Congress but gnashing of teeth.

Yet, while top issues are highly partisan, there are a number of bipartisan bills on a fast track in the 109th Congress - a sign that Republicans and a critical mass of Democrats are finding common ground - and GOP leaders aim to move them to a vote as rapidly as possible.

Surprisingly, the venue for this early bipartisanship is the Senate Judiciary Committee, expected to be the stage for bitter fights over Supreme Court nominations later in this Congress. The mood was conciliatory and even cordial, as Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania gaveled in the committee last week to launch the committee's legislative agenda. The new chairman aims to build as many bridges with Democrats as possible before nomination battles shut down prospects for bipartisan work.

Exhibit A is a long-stalled bill to move many class-action lawsuits into federal courts. First introduced in the 105th Congress - and reintroduced in every Congress since - it cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on a bipartisan 13-to-5 vote and begins debate on the floor of the Senate Monday.

A top priority of the US business community, the bill is the first and least controversial of a series of measures proposed by the Bush administration to overhaul US Courts. Others include consumer bankruptcy, asbestos litigation, and medical malpractice.

Supporters say the bill, which would shift many class-action lawsuits into federal courts, is needed to protect US business from "frivolous" lawsuits and trial lawyers who shop cases to the most favorable state venues.

Opponents, including all leading consumer groups, say that the bill will lock consumers out of the courts and let companies endanger the public.

"The class-action bill is one of the rare bills that cuts across party lines. A minority of Democrats realize that some change is necessary," says Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council.

It also marks a shift in strategy from the 108th Congress, where the GOP-controlled House would muscle through legislation on party-line votes, then watch them die in the Senate, where the rules favor the opposition. On the class-action bill, House GOP leaders have agreed to take up the Senate's bill, if it passes without amendment.

At the same time, many Democrats who have opposed the bill in the past are saving their fire for a vote they can win. While top Democrats such as minority leader Harry Reid oppose the bill, the party is not aiming to derail it. "The class-action debate demonstrates pragmatic leadership.... We don't have the votes to stop it," says Jim Manley, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic leadership.

Consumer groups who counted Senate votes over the weekend said they no longer have the votes to block the bill outright in a 55-to-45 vote (with one independent) Senate, but that they may be able to complicate its passage with amendments.

"It is unlikely that we can stop this unfair bill. But we believe we can get the votes to lessen the damage," says a spokesman for Public Citizen. A new Public Citizen report finds that at most two county court systems of 3,141 in the United States are "magnet jurisdictions" for lawsuits, and that at least 11 states have made significant changes in their class-action system that help businesses that are sued.

In often-spirited exchanges, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee vied as much with each other as with Republicans on this bill. "It is interesting to me that the main cosponsors way back then were Senators Kohl and Grassley, nonlawyers, and myself as a nonlawyer. The lawyers, I think perhaps look at this a little differently," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, a sponsor of the class-action bill.

"This is a bad idea whose time apparently has come," countered Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware.

After class action, the Judiciary panel expects to take up consumer bankruptcy legislation, which has also repeatedly derailed in previous Congresses. Senator Specter had hoped to move the bill to the floor for a vote by Feb. 14, but in response to Democratic concerns agreed to a hearing.

"We ought to stop and really reflect on ... whether the credit-card industry has some moral obligation here as part of this conversation," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the deputy Democratic leader.

Other issues expected to move through the judiciary panel include a deal on asbestos litigation and, later, medical malpractice reform.

Common ground goes beyond legal reforms. Senate Republicans say they are holding off moving an energy bill to the floor until at least April to boost emerging Democratic support. In addition, bipartisan coalitions are building on new legislation to support faith-based groups, to relax federal limits on stem-cell research, and to make repeal of the estate tax permanent.

"The polarization in Congress is not that Democrats and Republicans don't want to talk to each other, it's that their supporting constituencies are so hostile to each other," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "[One some issues] the interest group alignments are not as starkly rigid as they used to be."

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