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GOP infighting grows on eve of session

The animosity between the governor and Senate Republicans increases just before a special session on medical malpractice.

Published July 3, 2003

Senate President Jim King accused Republican Gov. Jeb Bush Wednesday of using the medical malpractice issue as a way of "getting even" with trial lawyers, the Democrats' biggest campaign contributors.

King's criticism of Bush, and even harsher comments by Senate Majority Leader Dennis Jones of Treasure Island, are an ominous prelude to next week's special legislative session on medical malpractice.

King, R-Jacksonville, said that if lawmakers are called back with no solution in sight, "the entire governmental process can be at risk."

The struggle over medical malpractice involves doctors, hospitals, insurers, lawyers and patients. It ranges from how to discipline doctors to a "bad faith" law meant to encourage insurers to settle cases on a timely basis. But the biggest disagreement is over Bush's demand for a $250,000 cap on damages for pain and suffering.

In a lengthy rebuttal to Bush's critique last week of the Senate's work, King said senators won't pass a malpractice bill that restricts patient access to courts in cases involving catastrophic medical errors.

"Governor, candidly, your bill and your public comments seem to have a strong emphasis on "getting even' with a group of folks," King wrote, referring to lawyers. "While I certainly understand your angst, might I suggest that you find a different way to accomplish what you want without jeopardizing the judicial rights of citizens truly injured by malpractice?"

Jones, a chiropractor and King's point man on medical malpractice, told senators he will not compromise.

"I am bothered by his obstinate stance," Jones said of Bush. "The public display of his lack of confidence in our ability to do our jobs . . . saddens and frustrates me."

The remarks by the two senators are the strongest signs yet that Bush has eroded his credibility with the people he needs the most: Senate Republicans.

The criticism from Jones and King surfaced two days after the governor's brother, President Bush, raised an estimated $3-million, with significant support from doctors, at fundraisers in Tampa and Miami.

At a $2,000-a-head Tampa reception Tuesday, Gov. Bush smiled as his brother received thunderous applause for urging limits on "frivolous lawsuits" against doctors and hospitals. During his re-election campaign last fall, the governor was quoted by Gannett News Service as blaming trial lawyers for resisting caps on damages.

"We need to whack the trial lawyers," Bush said.

Bush angered senators last week when he said he would call lawmakers into six special session if necessary, stretching into late September. Some lawmakers said they resented Bush for calling those sessions on the same day he left for a summer break at his parents' compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Jones said the integrity of the Senate as an institution is at stake.

"The moment the Florida Senate, as a body, concedes its position is the moment in time we surrender our power," Jones wrote. "We have three branches of government for a purpose."

Like doctors, trial lawyers are generous campaign donors, but they overwhelmingly favor Democrats at the state and federal level.

But in a notable departure from that trend, Florida trial lawyers last fall supported some moderate Republican senators, including Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach and Nancy Argenziano of Dunnellon. Both are skeptical of the $250,000 cap favored by Bush, doctors, insurance companies and the Florida House.

Senators plan to hold hearings with testimony under oath to resolve conflicting and confusing statements from various parties in the malpractice debate.

The Senate supports legislation that includes caps of as much as $6-million.

Bush's call for multiple special sessions could pose a big scheduling conflict and more ill will. Many lawmakers have booked plane tickets and hotel rooms for the week of July 21, when the National Conference of State Legislatures will hold an annual meeting in San Francisco. Bush reserved that week for a possible special session.

A King spokeswoman said the Senate president might cancel plans by more than a dozen senators to attend the conference. Tallahassee lobbyists have set up elaborate fundraising receptions and trips to San Francisco Giants games that week.

[Last modified July 3, 2003, 02:17:40]

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