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WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats on Wednesday killed legislation that would have restricted the rights of medical malpractice victims who seek monetary damages.

The Democrats used a filibuster to thwart a bill that the Bush administration said was needed to halt frivolous lawsuits and ease a health care crisis.

The 49-48 vote was 11 short of the 60 needed to overcome Democratic objections. The outcome fell largely along party lines, and both sides sought political gain in the bill's wreckage.

"Time and time again this Senate races to protect special interest groups and forgets the families and children and elderly people across America who are the victims of" medical errors, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He disputed claims that malpractice caps would reduce insurance costs, and he attacked the measure as an attempt to help the American Medical Association, HMOs, drug companies and the manufacturers of medical devices.

President Bush, who has made legal reform a priority, issued a statement expressing disappointment.

The measure, similar to a bill that cleared the House earlier this year, would have limited non-economic damages, commonly known as pain and suffering, to $250,000. Punitive damages would be capped at the greater of $250,000 or twice the amount of economic damages, which cover medical expenses, loss of wages, funeral expenses and similar costs. States would be permitted to enact higher limits.

Additionally, the measure called for limiting the amount of money attorneys could pocket if they work on a case on a contingency fee.

In many respects, the bill seemed doomed to failure from the outset. Republicans brought it to the floor without committee hearings or debate, steps that often lead to progress toward bipartisanship.

At the same time, the clash of powerful, competing special interests was evident throughout the debate.

The AMA, American Association of Hospitals and American Insurers Association, traditional Republican allies and heavy donors to GOP campaigns, all supported the measure.

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America, a reliable ally of Democrats and major donor to their campaigns, opposed it.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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