The Senate's failure last week to move on a GOP-backed product liability overhaul bill was just the latest blow to Republicans' once-high hopes of overhauling the nation's legal system.
"We're going to have to wait until we get more senators that see the trauma and cost caused by lawsuits," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. "That could be next year, or when we have a president who would sign it."
The Senate Thursday effectively killed for the session a bill that would have reduced manufacturers' liability in defective product lawsuits. The defeat was the latest in a string of setbacks for the GOP effort to put national limits on punitive damages and rein in what critics call an out-of-control tort system - a central plank of the 1994 "Contract With America."
Pat Rowland, executive director of the Product Liability Coordinating Committee, said reformers may have to wait until 2001 before making another push in Congress. And the wait could be even longer.
"I don't think a President Gore would sign tort reform," said Victor Schwartz," a leading lobbyist for product liability legislation.
The upshot: A hodgepodge of state laws regulating product liability lawsuits remains on the books, greatly increasing both legal bills and market uncertainties for businesses.
In Washington state, for example, punitive damages - payments for a plaintiff's "pain and suffering" designed to deter manufacturers from selling unsafe products - have been outlawed. Other states, such as Alabama and Texas, are known for plaintiff-friendly tort laws, sympathetic juries - and huge damage awards.
The most recent congressional stab at product liability reform is a far cry from the broad legal reform blueprint passed by the House in the heady early days of the "Contract With America."
That agenda would have capped pain and suffering damages, forced losing plaintiffs to pay the winners' legal bills in some cases, curbed the practice of suing deep-pocket defendants for full damages in cases where they were only marginally liable, and curtailed fraud lawsuits in securities and investment cases.
The securities liability bill became law - over Mr. Clinton's veto - but much of the rest of the Republican legal revolution remains unrealized.
The most recent bill collapsed in the Senate amid partisan bickering, with Democrats saying they were not being allowed to offer amendments and Republicans maintaining Democrats planned to use the bill to advance unrelated issues such as tobacco and health care. …