WASHINGTON - Stung by President Clinton's threat to veto a bill limiting damage awards in lawsuits involving faulty products, two of his most loyal Senate Democratic allies responded yesterday with the unusually harsh accusation that Mr. Clinton was rewarding the lawyers bankrolling his re-election bid.
The two senators, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, key sponsors of the compromise bill, angrily charged that Mr. Clinton had yielded to pressure from trial lawyers, who oppose any change in the current law.
"This is a rather cynical exercise on the part of the president of the United States," Mr. Rockefeller said at a joint news conference with Mr. Lieberman.
He argued that Mr. Clinton's veto threat was intended to keep Democrats from voting for the measure when it comes up this week, so he won't have to veto it at all. "I think the president has served the nation in a very ill fashion," Mr. Rockefeller said.
The White House dismissed the charge that Mr. Clinton was playing politics.
"The president, in a very principled way, says that consumers deserve better protections than this bill affords," said press secretary Mike McCurry. "Political contributions have flowed on both sides of this issue to both parties."
The bill's advocates say it would cut costs for businesses and consumers by eliminating the expense of frivolous lawsuits and unreasonably high damage awards, much of which often go to the lawyers. But last weekend, Mr. Clinton embraced the argument raised by opponents that limits on damages deny consumers their rights and encourage manufacturers to produce shoddy merchandise.
Mr. Rockefeller, who worked with House and Senate Republicans to forge a compromise that addressed both sides of the argument, said he was "disappointed" by Mr. Clinton's decision "but I wasn't surprised by it. I think one could have guessed that, if one simply looks back at where he gets his support," the senator added.
By the end of January, lawyers and law firms had contributed $2.6 million to Mr. Clinton's re-election effort, the largest share given by any occupational category. Lawyers were also the major donors to Mr. Clinton's 1992 election bid.
Mr. Lieberman, who called himself a "supporter and friend of President Clinton," said the president "is dead wrong. This is a moderate, thoughtful bill that reflects years of effort and many compromises."
"I know the president understands there are real problems with the status quo," he added. "The current system is inefficient, unpredictable, costly, slow and inequitable. Injured people wait years for judgments. The system has become unfair. Consumers pay higher prices and lawyers prosper."
Both senators recalled Mr. Clinton's early days as a governor of Arkansas, when he supported some limits on damage awards.
"In those days, he was a professor of law," Mr. Rockefeller observed. "In these days, he's become a professor in this area of politics, and rather obviously, raw politics at that."
With his veto threat, Mr. Clinton has almost certainly made product liability limits an issue in the fall campaign against the likely Republican nominee, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who is expected to support the measure.
In a letter to Congress, Mr. Clinton took a firm stand against the bill, which for the first time would set national limits on damage awards that consumers can collect if they are injured by defective goods.
The president argued that the bill would represent an "unwarranted intrusion" on the authority of states, which have a patchwork of laws in place governing liability in damage cases. Further, he said, the bill would displace state law only to aid manufacturers and sellers, not consumers.
But Mr. Rockefeller called the administration's arguments deeply flawed.
For example, he noted, the president complained about the elimination from the bill of a consumer protection that is already part of federal law and need not be duplicated.
What's more, Mr. Rockefeller said, the president told him he was unaware of another provision that in most cases would give injured people more time to sue for damages than current state laws do. "That's a very core part of the bill," Mr. Rockefeller said.
As the debate over the product liability measure unfolds, Democrats are likely to be divided on whether Mr. Clinton has chosen the wisest political course. His current position places him with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party at a time when the contest with Mr. Dole is a battle for the center of the electorate.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Mr. Clinton may still be open to compromise.
"I think he shares my view that we don't want to limit victims' rights, but there are ways with which to correct the abuses in product liability cases that everyone recognizes should be addressed," Mr. Daschle said.
Pub Date: 3/19/96