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
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. …