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TRIUMPHANT BUSH PUTS TORT REFORM, JUDICIAL NOMINEES ON AGENDA.

After the Nov. 5 midterm elections swept Republicans into control of the Senate and solidified the party's hold on the House, President Bush confidently called on lawmakers returning for this week's lame-duck session to pass the stalled terrorism insurance bill and laid out his agenda for the next Congress.

Calling the elections a referendum on the president's agenda, congressional Republican leaders unanimously agreed to work closely with him to pass it. His agenda includes tort reform, confirmation of his nominees for federal court judgeships, accelerated tax cuts, pension protection and the GOP-version of a prescription-drug benefit for seniors.

To get bills through the Senate, however, the Republicans will still have to garner 60 votes to cut off debate and force a vote.

That is nine more votes than they currently have, although they might pick up one more in the next Congress as a result of the Dec. 7 Louisiana runoff between Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican state Commissioner of Elections Suzanne Haik Terrell.

Republicans also could pick up one additional vote before the next session opens if the lame-duck session lasts longer than two weeks - the length of time anticipated to certify the official results from Missouri in the Senate election, in which James M. Talent won the unexpired seat of Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash two years ago. That seat currently is held by Carnahan's widow, Jean, who was appointed to the seat after her husband's death and who lost to Talent by less than 1 percent of the vote.

Republicans could pick up another vote in the lame-duck session if Independent David Barkley, who was appointed by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I) to fill out the term of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) after Wellstone died in a plane crash Oct. 25, decides to vote with the Republican caucus.

If Barkely decides to vote with the Democrats, they would maintain their majority in the lame-duck session. If not, the Republicans could gain control of the session.

Whichever party controls, however, they won't be able to move major legislation without 60 votes.

The president's first test in seeing whether he can now get the necessary 60 votes will come this week as the lame-duck session takes up the stalled homeland security and terrorism insurance measures.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) has threatened to filibuster the homeland security measure unless the president compromises on granting civil service protections to the department's employees. If Byrd does so, the president will need 60 votes to cut off debate.

Getting the terrorism insurance bill through the lame-duck session appears much more likely, as the Senate passed its version of the bill unanimously last summer.

The Senate bill, however, contained no ban on punitive damages or other tort reform measures the House bill contained.

Although House Financial Services Committee Chairman Michael Oxley (R-OH) reached a compromise over these differences with Senate conferees, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) refused to sign off on any compromise that didn't contain some of the House tort reform measures.

The president has not indicated whether he has decided to work out a compromise with Sensenbrenner or challenge the lame-duck Senate to pass a bill with tort reform measures.

But he did say he wanted "immediate" action, so he likely will push for a compromise which could go through both chambers quickly.

That approach is backed by Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), who will be the new Senate majority leader, because he does not favor an extended lame-duck session.

On other tort reform issues, such as restricting jury awards and limiting class-action suits, Bush will pick up additional support in the new session from three Republicans who captured Senate seats formerly held by Democrats in Missouri, Georgia and Minnesota.

Bush also will be helped by Republican wins in New Hampshire, where Rep. John E. Sununu defeated Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) with 51 percent of the vote, in Colorado where incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard (R) defeated former U.S. Attorney John Strickland (D), also by 51 percent, and in Texas, where Attorney General John Cornyn (R) defeated former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D).

On taxes, Bush has promised to enact legislation to make the tax cuts in last year's tax-cut package permanent rather than expire in 10 years, as the law now provides, and has given a special push to making the package's graduated repeal of estate taxes permanent.

"If people are really interested in job creation, they ought to join me in my call to make the tax cuts permanent," he said. "It's an important part of sending a signal that there is certainty in the tax code, that all the benefits from tax relief don't go away after 10 years."

The Senate came only six votes short last summer of having the 60 votes necessary to move a bill permanently repealing the estate taxes, and now will have additional support from the new Arkansas senator, Democrat Mark Pryor.

The president is also considering getting around the 60-vote requirement by including accelerated tax cuts in next year's budget proposal so they would not have to come up as a special budgetary measure and could pass with only 51 votes.

Treasury Undersecretary John Taylor indicated Nov. 6 the president would include in his next budget a provision to accelerate by one year the tax rate cuts scheduled to take effect in 2004 under Bush's 10-year tax plan.

Enacting permanent and accelerated tax cuts when the nation is facing an increasing budget deficit, however, could slow Bush's agenda, particularly since Democratic Sens. John Kerry (MA) and Joseph Lieberman (CT) - two likely challengers to Bush in the next presidential campaign - have come out strongly opposed to accelerating Bush's tax cuts or making them permanent.

Bush also could face challenges from key Republicans over the impact of the tax cuts on the nation's ever-growing deficit.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) is strongly opposed to deficits and is the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee.

The Senate Republican leadership might avoid a committee battle with Domenici by offering him the chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That chairmanship will be available because Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-AK) won his bid for governor of Alaska.

If Domenici agrees to the switch, Sen. Don Nickles (R-OK) would take over the Budget Committee. Although Nickles abhors deficits, too, he is more likely than Domenici to go along with the president's agenda on tax cuts.

Lott is anxious to help Bush push through his nominees for the federal judiciary and intends to act immediately on reviving two circuit court nominations which were killed in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Those two nominees are Lott's personal friend, District Court Judge Charles W. Pickering of Mississippi, and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen.

Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, indicated they were willing to wait to push any nominees until early in the next session.

Bush's proposal for modest pension protection is likely to pass quickly, but Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the new chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, are expected to be willing to work out compromises with Democrats rather than automatically adopting the president's proposals on other issues before their committees.

On prescription-drug coverage for seniors, Grassley is expected to push the "tripartisan" proposal he co-sponsored with Sens. John Breaux (D-LA) and James Jeffords (I-VT), although the House passed a bill with some significant differences.

The House bill was sponsored by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT), who won reelection in a new district with 54 percent of the vote. The White House appears to be leaning toward letting Grassley take the lead on this agenda issue.

Jeffords would be taking over the chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, except for the fact he switched from the Republican to the Independent party 15 months ago, giving control of the Senate to the Democrats.

Now, the more conservative Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) will succeed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) as chairman.
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Publication:Liability & Insurance Week
Date:Nov 12, 2002
Words:1350
Next Article:>SUPREME COURT AGAIN TAKES UP PUNITIVE DAMAGES.


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