The D.C. City Council, capping weeks of political maneuvering and angry debate, last night narrowly defeated a move to repeal the city's controversial no-fault auto insurance law that is scheduled to go into effect Oct. 1.
The council rejected, 8 to 4, a bill proposed by council member John Ray (D-At Large) that would have supplanted the no-fault law and would have required motorists simply to purchase regular liability auto insurance.
Ray, acknowledging that he did not have enough votes for passage of his bill, attempted to withdraw the measure, but was blocked by council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), a supporter of no-fault. Ray then moved to have the measure tabled, but this lost on a key 6-6 tie vote.
The subsequent defeat of Ray's bill was a blow to opponents of no-fault auto insurance who, until a few weeks ago, appeared to have the votes to upset the no-fault law that was approved only last summer.
"I think we put the issue behind us," said council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), a leader of the no-fault proponents. "I don't think there's anyone of us who wants to go though this again."
Ray, however, was undeterred. After the council session, he described his defeat as "a heart attack, but its the bill not dead yet." During debate, Ray--in an emotional, 20-minute speech--declared that "we're going to regret the day we passed no-fault insurance and placed it on the backs of our citizens."
Several council members, including opponents of no-fault, noted, however, that the council is scheduled to go on summer recess July 15, and said they doubted Ray could mount an effective attack on the law in time.
Under the no-fault law, District motorists for the first time will be required to purchase auto insurance. Transportation officials have estimated that 100,000 vehicles--or about 40 percent of those registered here--are uninsured. Motorists will have to show proof of insurance before they will be given auto tags.
Under a no-fault system, a motorist's own insurance company pays the cost of personal injuries suffered in an auto accident without a determination of who is at fault.
The District law provides for insurance protection against personal injury of up to $100,000 and lost wages.
The measure also restricts a motorist's right to sue for "pain and suffering" unless actual medical bills exceed $5,000. The limitation on the right to sue drew most of the opposition from trial attorneys who said consumers would be put at the mercy of insurance companies.
Property damage to automobiles is not covered by no-fault provisions. Those claims will still be paid based on which driver causes an accident.
The debate over no-fault has pitted the city's insurance companies against trial lawyers.
Voting against the key move by Ray to table his bill were council members Kane, Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large), Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), Winter and H. R. Crawford (D-Ward 7).
Voting with Ray were Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), John Wilson (D-Ward 2) and Council Chairman David A. Clarke. Clarke, who supports no-fault, and Wilson, for parliamentary reasons, later voted to defeat Ray's bill.
Council member Jerry A. Moore (R-At Large), generally considered an opponent of no-fault, was out of town last night, attending a Baptist ministers conference in Memphis. According to council members, Moore had expressed willingness to return to Washington, but was told by no-fault opponents that his vote would not make any difference.
Had Moore been present, the Ray bill might have been put off for two weeks, according to council members, but it still would probably have faced a 7-to-6 defeat.
The pro no-fault council members stuck to a strategy last night of sitting silently while opponents denounced the insurance law but changed no votes.
As Ray began to speak early in the session, one aide to a council member who opposes no-fault left the council chamber. "He's giving the eulogy," the aide said.
The council last night also approved a $1 million supplemental budget for the D.C. lottery board and a variety of changes in the city's cable television law.
In addition, the council gave preliminary approval to a measure that would require that the District's public housing projects be subjected to the same standards as private housing in the city's efforts to reduce the hazards of lead-based paints.