WASHINGTON -- A White House conference on the economy turned into a forum for bashing trial lawyers Wednesday as President Bush and his allies demanded congressional action to limit lawsuits.
Surrounded by a panel of enthusiastic supporters, Bush said lawsuits against businesses and manufacturers are a drag on the economy and must be reined in. He called for a new system to deal with asbestos-related cases, and new limits on medical malpractice cases and class-action lawsuits involving groups of plaintiffs.
US President George W. Bush laughs during the morning session at the White House Conference on the Economy at the Ronald Reagan Center in Washington,. The two-day White House-sponsored event is aimed at boosting President Bush's economic agenda. REUTERS/Larry Downing
He chuckled and nodded as panelists at the two-day conference aired their contempt for trial lawyers.
``What you have today is business on one side, and you've got the trial lawyers on the other side. . . . You've got deep pockets colliding with shallow principles,'' Robert Nardelli, the chief executive at Home Depot, said to laughter from the audience and the president.
Nardelli was one of several Republican donors at the conference. The Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign spenders, found that conference participants donated nearly $195,000 to various Republican candidates or causes in recent years, including $40,000 to Bush.
The Association of Trial Lawyers of America issued a statement accusing the president of trying to strip away the rights of ordinary Americans while protecting insurers, manufacturers and the health care industry.
``President Bush's economic plan pretends that taking away the legal rights of American families will reduce health care costs. He unashamedly advocates legislation that would protect insurance-industry profits and prohibit any punishment for the makers of dangerous drugs like Vioxx, while penalizing your mother for being abused in a nursing home or your daughter for having her baby killed by medical malpractice,'' said Todd Smith, the group's president.
``That's not an economic plan. It is yet another giveaway to the insurance, drug, HMO and nursing-home industries.''
The hourlong session on ``the high costs of lawsuit abuse'' was one of several panels examining various aspects of Bush's second-term domestic agenda. With nary a word of dissent, the panelists -- all selected by the White House -- endorsed the president's plans to partially privatize Social Security, permanently extend his first-term tax cuts and limit lawsuits.
Vice President Dick Cheney warned about the looming financial problems of Social Security, declaring that ``younger people are understandably concerned'' about receiving benefits.
Treasury Secretary John Snow, acknowledging that shifting to personal savings accounts could require an unprecedented surge of new federal borrowing, predicted that ``Wall Street would applaud'' because the government would eventually meet its long-term obligations.
And in a separate forum, a top White House official ruled out the suspicion that Bush might agree to pay for his plan by raising payroll taxes on people with incomes above $90,000 a year.
Turning the president's agenda into law won't be easy. A variety of powerful interest groups are gearing up to challenge his ambitious plans. Even some of his fellow Republican lawmakers aren't sold on some issues. There's no consensus plan to revise the federal tax system, and some Republican lawmakers remain wary of any major changes to Social Security.
Some of the president's proposals to restrict lawsuits, including his plan to limit damages for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases to $250,000, stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate in his first term.
At a separate session Wednesday in the Oval Office, Bush reaffirmed his support for a strong dollar and pledged to work to roll back deficits to create a stronger economic climate for the U.S. currency. He noted that the interest-rate increase the Federal Reserve approved Tuesday indicated Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan's concern as well.
``The policy of my government is a strong-dollar policy,'' Bush said, with visiting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at his side. ``We believe that the markets should make the decision about the relationship between the dollar and the euro.''
He added, ``We'll do everything we can in the upcoming legislative session to send a signal to the markets that we'll deal with our deficit, which, hopefully, will cause people to want to buy dollars.''
If the dollar were to suddenly plummet in value, that could cause foreign investors in U.S. stocks and bonds to rush for the exits. Such a development would send stock prices plunging and interest rates soaring. Some analysts believe the shock would be enough to push the country into another recession.
The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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