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Washington Insight

August 03, 1995|From The Times Washington Bureau

STALLED REFORM: The legal reform juggernaut that looked unstoppable in Congress last spring may be dead, at least for now, congressional aides and business lobbyists say. Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) concedes the legislation, which would limit damage awards in lawsuits, may not be finished in 1995. The central hang-up: Neither the House nor the Senate wants to budge. House Republicans passed a broad bill limiting damages, including in medical malpractice cases. The Senate OKd a limited bill that affects only product liability cases. But no date has been set for talks to reconcile the differences. Yet this is not all bad for lawmakers. Pushing legal reform into 1996 would thrust it into the campaign season--and corporate interests, who back reforms, and trial lawyers, who oppose them, are usually willing to dole out huge contributions to influence the outcome.

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IN ABSENTIA: Gov. Pete Wilson has managed to press on with his presidential campaign even while mired in Sacramento negotiating a state budget. As lawmakers debated, Wilson sneaked across the street from the Capitol to a satellite TV hookup that beamed interviews to stations across the nation. In Iowa, site of a crucial presidential caucus next year, the Des Moines Register recently carried an opinion-page article by Wilson about illegal immigration. In New Hampshire, the nation's first primary, Wilson staged a long-distance coup by signing up a couple of prominent political organizers. "He has some pretty high-powered people on his payroll and he's opened an office, so I assume that means he's serious," said ex-New Hampshire Gov. Judd Gregg.

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PLUGGING AWAY: Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist was not unhappy to see the fare being served at a luncheon this week to help retire his campaign debts. Since the freshman Republican plans to serve no more than two terms, he will return one day to his career as a heart transplant specialist. So eat up, he urged as the crowd munched on barbecued pork. "I will need the patients."

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LINGERING TROUBLE: The new Defense Department study suggesting there is no evidence of a mysterious illness afflicting Gulf War veterans may spell relief for the Pentagon, but it may be causing a headache for the White House. Pentagon strategists were flabbergasted last winter when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton began showing interest in the issue, which many regard as a political hot potato that could rival the fight over Vietnam-era MIAs. Now veterans' groups are criticizing a committee put together by the First Lady to focus on the problem. Veterans claim the panel is stacked with retired military officers and industry representatives who are unlikely to challenge the Pentagon. And they note that the panel's report is not due until December, 1996--safely beyond the November presidential voting.

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GONE AGAIN: The way Washington car thieves keep picking on Rep. Jerry Lewis, you'd think the Redlands Republican had a Maserati in his garage instead of a 1984 Oldsmobile with a couple of dings. Actually, Lewis has nothing in his garage at the moment, not since he woke up Sunday morning to find that for the third time in four years, his car has been stolen. "Why these old junkers are such a target, I'll never know," Lewis lamented. It began in 1991 when Lewis' 14-year-old blue Oldsmobile was stolen and never seen again. In 1994, Lewis emerged from a restaurant to find a thief stealing the maroon replacement, only to crash it into two parked cars, a parking meter and a tree. Sunday, Lewis walked outside his Capitol Hill home to get a paper at 7 a.m. and voila. "With the luck I've had, I'm tempted to buy a set of roller blades."

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