Congress Crosses Partisan Divides on Some Issues ; Agreement on Moving Class-Action Suits to Federal Courts Indicates Bridge Building between Parties, for Now

Article excerpt

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. …