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Legislature

Bush muscles senators for deal

As the governor extends the special session, he tries to squeeze Republicans who disagree with his medical malpractice cap.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published July 17, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush ordered lawmakers to keep working on a medical malpractice bill Wednesday, hours after he privately declared war on Republican senators who disagree with him.

Bush said he extended the special session from midnight Wednesday to 7 p.m. Monday because he thought lawmakers were making progress toward a compromise.

But Senate President Jim King said the two sides were no closer than they were the day before. And only hours before Bush's public comments, he privately told lobbyists that he wasn't sure when he would call legislators back because "he needed time to use all the muscle of his office to rally public support. . . ."

That muscle included urging local Republican committees and business groups to cut off campaign contributions to Republicans who control the Senate. A lobbyist quickly detailed Bush's plan to members of the coalition. The e-mail soon made its way around the state capital.

Bush "made a plea for business groups to quit giving money to the Senate Republicans, until they do the right thing," wrote Florida Hospital Association lobbyist Ralph Glatfelter. "He couldn't have been stronger or more clear about what he intends to do."

Bush has long favored a strict $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards, but made a peace offering Wednesday. For cases with multiple plaintiffs who can sue multiple doctors and facilities, Bush said he would support a $2.5-million ceiling instead of the $1-million he agreed to last week.

Still, the governor did not retract the comments Glatfelter attributed to him, saying Republicans will lose their status as the ruling party in the state if they don't adhere to Republican principles. That includes supporting a "meaningful" cap.

"If it weren't for the fact that Democrats are pretty inept right now you might have already seen some changes," Bush told reporters. He added that Democrats lost control of the state because they could not keep themselves centered on their core principles.

Bush's praise for House and Senate negotiators notwithstanding, his comments about Republican senators did little to warm relations with Senate leaders, which have chilled considerably in the last week.

King said it's frustrating to try to deal with skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance premiums when the governor is trying to "annihilate" certain Republican senators.

"Once again he seems to refer to the fact that if we differ from him we are wrong," King said. "Our challenge back to him, carefully stated, is, if we solve the problem, why aren't we as right as he?" King added.

And as for Bush's predictions that Republicans could lose power if they stray too far from their core beliefs, King offered Bush his own history lesson: "I would also point out we became the ruling party because the Democrats began a lot of infighting."

Whether the House and Senate can agree on a medical malpractice bill palatable to the governor even by Monday is unclear.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, one of the Senate's chief medical malpractice negotiators and a frequent target of Bush's criticism, said a higher ceiling is largely ineffective because so few victims of malpractice would ever meet the conditions required to receive that amount.

Most people would still see $250,000 or double that if they could prove both the doctor and the hospital were at fault, and would never qualify for "this perfect storm that is being concocted," said Lee.

The Senate wants a higher basic cap, such as $500,000, though it is willing to lower the $6-million ceiling for the most egregious cases included in its last bill, King said.

The Senate worked privately into the evening Wednesday on what King said likely will be that chamber's final offer. King said the new Senate plan would greatly expand the lawsuit immunity typically reserved for government agencies to a wide group of emergency physicians and nurses. The new bill also would likely include a freeze on malpractice insurance rates, King said.

Senate leaders say they are unsure how the House will react to the new offer, but are convinced the House will go along if Bush does.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, who has been mostly silent during the spat between Bush and the Senate, released a statement saying he was hopeful a bill soon will pass both chambers.

"We have negotiated in good faith with the Senate for over a month now and believe we are very close. We look forward to seeing the latest Senate proposal this evening and will continue to negotiate with them on this issue until we can reach a consensus," Byrd said.

[Last modified July 17, 2003, 02:03:21]


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