Major legislation revising the rules by which class-action lawsuits are waged will be headed as early as next week to the White House for President Bush's signature, as easy Senate passage yesterday gave Bush and business groups a long-sought victory they asserted will result in fewer meritless cases clogging the courts.
The Senate passed the bill 72 to 26, as many Democrats joined most Republicans in passing the measure, which will funnel class-action suits with plaintiffs from multiple states out of state courts and into the federal system. Proponents say the change will lead to more rational and more consistent rulings. Consumer groups fighting the bill warned that, in practice, many valid claims will never be heard, because federal judges often dismiss class-action cases on procedural grounds.
The easy Senate passage had been forecast earlier in the week, when amendments that opponents of the Class Action Fairness Act said would make the measure less objectionable did not pass. The Republican leadership in the House -- where similar measures have passed several times in recent years -- had already announced that it would push the bill to passage if the Senate passed a "clean" bill unburdened by amendments.
"We look forward to this legislation coming to the House floor next week so we can send it to President Bush," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and other backers said in a statement after the Senate vote.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said the passage indicated that bipartisanship is still possible in the Senate, despite several years in which partisan warfare has thrived and relationships across the aisle have frayed. He specifically praised his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who opposed the measure, for not using procedural tactics that might have stalled the measure even with majority support. The comment was by implication a shot at what Republicans regarded as the revanchist tactics of former Senate minority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who lost his reelection bid last fall.
"Harry and I had a commitment to work together," Frist said.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he hopes the class-action measure "is an example -- I hope it is a template" for more cooperation in the future.
But Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said it would be wrong to read too much into the class-action development, which he described as a simple procedural remedy whose time had come.
Another Democrat, Sen. Herb Kohl (Wis.), said the measure will take aim at "forum-shopping," in which lawyers file cases in localities where judges and courts are known to be sympathetic to plaintiffs, regardless of whether there is any logic to hearing the case there. "Every bill with merit will still go forward," he said.
Opponents, including many state attorneys general and consumer groups, vigorously dispute this point. The amendments rejected by the Senate earlier in the week were aimed at ensuring that federal judges accept the cases, rather than dismiss them on the grounds that in national class-action cases there can be confusion about how to apply diverse state regulatory laws. The failure of the amendments, said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), showed that "the fix is in" and that the Senate has been "reduced to taking its marching orders on major legislation from corporate special interests and . . . allies in the White House."
Joan Claybrook, head of the consumer group Public Citizen, warned that yesterday's action "has given banks, credit card companies, insurers, HMOs, drug manufacturers and other big corporations a green light to defraud and deceive consumers without fear of being held accountable."