Saturday, July 30, 2005

Senate Approves Bill Protecting Gun Businesses

The New York Times

Senate Approves Bill Protecting Gun Businesses

WASHINGTON, July 29 - The Senate agreed to shield gun manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits on Friday, as Congress broke for a monthlong recess after sending President Bush energy and transportation bills that had been years in the making.

Long sought by the gun lobby, the Senate measure - approved 65 to 31 - would prohibit lawsuits against gun makers and distributors for misuse of their products during the commission of a crime. Senate supporters said the plan was needed to protect the domestic firearms industry from a rash of lawsuits that threatened its economic future.

"This bill is intended to do one thing and that is to end the abuse that is now going on in the court system of America against law-abiding American businesses when they violate no law," Senator Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican who is a chief advocate for gun-rights causes in Congress, said Friday.

Democratic opponents of the bill disputed the assertion that a lawsuit crisis threatened the industry and said that the measure was simply a reflection of the National Rifle Association's influence over Congress.

"This is about politics, the power of the N.R.A. to dictate legislation," said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, who led the opposition.

But Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, and 13 other Democrats joined 50 Republicans and one independent to support the bill; it now goes to the House, where its prospects for approval are good when Congress returns. Twenty-nine Democrats and two Republicans opposed it.

The gun measure was just one of the significant pieces of legislation to advance as Congress cleared its plate for a fall that will initially be consumed, in the Senate at least, by consideration of a Supreme Court nominee. Before leaving, Senate Republicans and Democrats also agreed on the schedule for confirmation hearings.

Ending a long policy struggle, the Senate passed and sent to Mr. Bush a broad piece of energy legislation, fulfilling an early domestic policy goal of his administration.

After extinguishing one last policy flare-up, the House and Senate also gave final approval to a $286.4 billion highway measure stuffed with special projects for virtually every Congressional district in the nation. Congress also finished its first two spending bills of the year, delivering $1.5 billion in emergency money to cover a shortfall in spending on veterans' health care.

And in an unexpected development, the Senate renewed its version of the antiterror USA Patriot Act.

It was a blistering pace compared to the usual level of legislative activity. "We either do nothing or everything at once," said Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia.

The House adopted the highway measure on Friday morning by 412 to 8; the Senate agreed to it later in the day by 91 to 4. The bill had been delayed for years by disputes between the administration and Congress over the level of spending and fights over the formula for distributing money among the states. Its authors said the bill would help to ease traffic congestion around the country, improve safety, provide thousands of jobs and strengthen the economy.

"Modern highways and efficient transportation are essential to maintaining America's competitive edge," said Representative Thomas E. Petri, a Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the highways subcommittee. "It has been a struggle to craft this bill and to be fair to every region, but its importance would be hard to exaggerate."

Critics in both the House and Senate as well as watchdog groups criticized the measure for its price tag and the wide variety of special projects - nearly 6,000 by one count - including multimillion-dollar highways and bridges, museums and recreational trails, and even transportation improvements at the Bronx Zoo.

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is a frequent critic of such spending, spent almost 30 minutes on the Senate floor, singling out dozens of projects for ridicule, including $2.2 million to make landscape improvements to the Ronald Reagan freeway in California.

"I wonder what Ronald Reagan would say," Mr. McCain said, noting that the late president was a critic of such Congressional largesse.

House members had hoped to approve the transportation bill on Thursday, but several lawmakers objected to a Senate plan they said was an effort to circumvent the closing of an Air Force base in Montana. Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic senator from the state, disputed that assertion but agreed to withdraw the provision.

The energy plan was stalled two years ago by a filibuster, but senators on Friday endorsed the energy policy, 74 to 26. It includes $14.5 billion in industry and energy efficiency tax breaks along with provisions that seek to increase domestic use of renewable fuels, reinvigorate the nuclear power industry and bolster the nation's electric grid. Its passage was made possible when House Republicans dropped a push to grant producers of a gasoline additive protection from pollution lawsuits.

Senator Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who was a chief author of the bill, dismissed complaints that it did too little to lower gas prices or reduce consumption.

"The problem is far bigger than gasoline prices tomorrow morning," Mr. Domenici said. "It is what will be the state of energy in 5 and 10 years from now in the United States. I can tell you, we will be safer. We will have more jobs, we will have an electricity system that is safe and sound. We will have diversity of energy sources and supplies built in our country for us."

Mr. Bush also welcomed the energy bill, which passed Congress more than four years after an administration task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney called for a new national energy approach.

"The bipartisan energy bill passed today will give America a comprehensive national energy strategy for the first time in more than a decade and is critically important to our long-term national and economic security," Mr. Bush said in a statement.

Other lawmakers and conservation groups continued to criticize the measure, saying it was too generous to industry and too timid when it came to addressing consumption.

"Our nation's energy crisis has reached historic levels," said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts. "We need policy whose boldness is commensurate with that crisis. But that's not what we're getting. Instead, we're getting a pork-laden, lobbyist-driven dream bill."

On the gun legislation, Democrats offered a series of amendments but were beaten back, except in pressing for a measure that would permit lawsuits in cases in which a weapon lacked child-safety locks. Mr. Craig said that change was acceptable to both the industry and the House since such locks were now virtually an industry standard.

Congressional Democrats had been able to scuttle the bill in the past, but Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, employed a procedural maneuver to limit amendments. Democrats said the Republican argument that protecting gun companies was a national security priority because of supplies to the military and police was disingenuous.

"Guess what," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, "the bulk of contracts to arm our country's military and law enforcement are already held by foreign manufacturers based in Austria, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Jordan and Belgium. And lawsuits have nothing to do with that."

But supporters said the proposal was modest and would not protect gun makers or dealers from lawsuits in cases where they acted illegally. "America's crime problems will be solved not by unjustly targeting the gun industry for the criminal actions of others, but by targeting the unjust criminals," Mr. Frist said.

As the Senate moved through the day's votes, some lawmakers urged their colleagues to hurry so they could begin their summer break or, in the case of Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, attend to other pressing matters.

"Could we please cut down on the rhetoric so that we might be able to get along with the people's business and cast our votes?" Mr. Roberts asked. "I make this request not only as a senator from Kansas but as the father of a young lady that I will be walking down the aisle tomorrow."