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Executive Summary

A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled for Sept. 9 will address Sen. Danforth's (R-Mo.) product liability bill (S 2760), even though the legislation has not been referred to the Judiciary Committee for review. Danforth's measure has been sent directly to the Senate floor and is expected to be considered after Congress reconvenes. It is highly unusual for a congressional committee to schedule a hearing on legislation when it has not received referral. Reportedly, the Administration asked Judiciary Committee Chairman Thurmond (R-S.C.) to hold the hearing. When Danforth introduced a clean version of the Commerce Committee-passed legislation on Aug. 14, he explained that negotiations for sequential referral to the Judiciary Committee had stalled. Danforth said Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee requested a 30-day referral initially, then referral until Sept. 12. The Commerce Committee instead offered two alternatives, Danforth said: "A straight 30-day referral; or a referral lasting through Sept. 12, conditioned on an agreement to limit debate on a motion to proceed to have the full Senate debate S 2760. Both alternatives were rejected." Danforth attempted to negotiate an agreement on limiting debate because it is considered likely that the bill will be filibustered if it is brought up on the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Dole (R-Kan.), speaking at the Small Business Conference on Aug. 21, said Senate consideration of S 2760 is a top priority. He also praised small business leaders for support for passage of product liability legislation and urged them to continue pressing Congress for legislative relief. If the bill is brought to the floor, any senator can extensively debate the motion to proceed with consideration. Opponents of the bill, particularly among consumerist groups and trial lawyers, can be expected to find a senator willing to filibuster S 2760. Dole would not be expected to allow a filibuster to continue beyond several hours before abandoning the bill. The House has not taken any action on product liability legislation. Rep. Waxman (D-Calif.), whose Commerce/Health Subcommittee has legislative jurisdiction over the issue, has indicated he will not schedule hearings until a Senate-passed bill is referred to the House. A clue to the House's attitude toward product liability legislation might be its Aug. 13 defeat of the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety and Insurance Act. The bill (HR 5013), which would limit fishing industry liability for businesses that provide for equitable compensation for employees who are injured on the job, was defeated under suspension of the rules by a 241-181 margin.

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