The Senate agreed to shield gun manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits
on Friday, as Congress broke for a monthlong recess after sending President Bush
energy and transportation bills that had been years in the making.
Long sought by the gun lobby, the Senate measure - approved 65 to 31 - would
prohibit lawsuits against gun makers and distributors for misuse of their products
during the commission of a crime. Senate supporters said the plan was needed
to protect the domestic firearms industry from a rash of lawsuits that threatened
its economic future.
"This bill is intended to do one thing and that is to end the abuse that
is now going on in the court system of America against law-abiding American
businesses when they violate no law," Senator Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican
who is a chief advocate for gun-rights causes in Congress, said Friday.
Democratic opponents of the bill disputed the assertion that a lawsuit crisis
threatened the industry and said that the measure was simply a reflection of
the National Rifle Association's influence over Congress.
"This is about politics, the power of the N.R.A. to dictate legislation,"
said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, who led the opposition.
But Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, and 13 other Democrats
joined 50 Republicans and one independent to support the bill; it now goes to
the House, where its prospects for approval are good when Congress returns.
Twenty-nine Democrats and two Republicans opposed it.
The gun measure was just one of the significant pieces of legislation to advance
as Congress cleared its plate for a fall that will initially be consumed, in
the Senate at least, by consideration of a Supreme Court nominee. Before leaving,
Senate Republicans and Democrats also agreed on the schedule for confirmation
Ending a long policy struggle, the Senate passed and sent to Mr. Bush a broad
piece of energy legislation, fulfilling an early domestic policy goal of his
After extinguishing one last policy flare-up, the House and Senate also gave
final approval to a $286.4 billion highway measure stuffed with special projects
for virtually every Congressional district in the nation. Congress also finished
its first two spending bills of the year, delivering $1.5 billion in emergency
money to cover a shortfall in spending on veterans' health care.
And in an unexpected development, the Senate renewed its version of the antiterror
USA Patriot Act.
It was a blistering pace compared to the usual level of legislative activity.
"We either do nothing or everything at once," said Senator John W.
Warner, Republican of Virginia.
The House adopted the highway measure on Friday morning by 412 to 8; the Senate
agreed to it later in the day by 91 to 4. The bill had been delayed for years
by disputes between the administration and Congress over the level of spending
and fights over the formula for distributing money among the states. Its authors
said the bill would help to ease traffic congestion around the country, improve
safety, provide thousands of jobs and strengthen the economy.
"Modern highways and efficient transportation are essential to maintaining
America's competitive edge," said Representative Thomas E. Petri, a Wisconsin
Republican who is chairman of the highways subcommittee. "It has been a
struggle to craft this bill and to be fair to every region, but its importance
would be hard to exaggerate."
Critics in both the House and Senate as well as watchdog groups criticized
the measure for its price tag and the wide variety of special projects - nearly
6,000 by one count - including multimillion-dollar highways and bridges, museums
and recreational trails, and even transportation improvements at the Bronx Zoo.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is a frequent critic of such
spending, spent almost 30 minutes on the Senate floor, singling out dozens of
projects for ridicule, including $2.2 million to make landscape improvements
to the Ronald Reagan freeway in California.
"I wonder what Ronald Reagan would say," Mr. McCain said, noting
that the late president was a critic of such Congressional largesse.
House members had hoped to approve the transportation bill on Thursday, but
several lawmakers objected to a Senate plan they said was an effort to circumvent
the closing of an Air Force base in Montana. Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic
senator from the state, disputed that assertion but agreed to withdraw the provision.
The energy plan was stalled two years ago by a filibuster, but senators on
Friday endorsed the energy policy, 74 to 26. It includes $14.5 billion in industry
and energy efficiency tax breaks along with provisions that seek to increase
domestic use of renewable fuels, reinvigorate the nuclear power industry and
bolster the nation's electric grid. Its passage was made possible when House
Republicans dropped a push to grant producers of a gasoline additive protection
from pollution lawsuits.
Senator Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who was a chief author
of the bill, dismissed complaints that it did too little to lower gas prices
or reduce consumption.
"The problem is far bigger than gasoline prices tomorrow morning,"
Mr. Domenici said. "It is what will be the state of energy in 5 and 10
years from now in the United States. I can tell you, we will be safer. We will
have more jobs, we will have an electricity system that is safe and sound. We
will have diversity of energy sources and supplies built in our country for
Mr. Bush also welcomed the energy bill, which passed Congress more than four
years after an administration task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney called
for a new national energy approach.
"The bipartisan energy bill passed today will give America a comprehensive
national energy strategy for the first time in more than a decade and is critically
important to our long-term national and economic security," Mr. Bush said
in a statement.
Other lawmakers and conservation groups continued to criticize the measure,
saying it was too generous to industry and too timid when it came to addressing
"Our nation's energy crisis has reached historic levels," said Senator
John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts. "We need policy whose boldness is
commensurate with that crisis. But that's not what we're getting. Instead, we're
getting a pork-laden, lobbyist-driven dream bill."
On the gun legislation, Democrats offered a series of amendments but were beaten
back, except in pressing for a measure that would permit lawsuits in cases in
which a weapon lacked child-safety locks. Mr. Craig said that change was acceptable
to both the industry and the House since such locks were now virtually an industry
Congressional Democrats had been able to scuttle the bill in the past, but
Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, employed a procedural
maneuver to limit amendments. Democrats said the Republican argument that protecting
gun companies was a national security priority because of supplies to the military
and police was disingenuous.
"Guess what," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts,
"the bulk of contracts to arm our country's military and law enforcement
are already held by foreign manufacturers based in Austria, Italy, Germany,
Sweden, Jordan and Belgium. And lawsuits have nothing to do with that."
But supporters said the proposal was modest and would not protect gun makers
or dealers from lawsuits in cases where they acted illegally. "America's
crime problems will be solved not by unjustly targeting the gun industry for
the criminal actions of others, but by targeting the unjust criminals,"
Mr. Frist said.
As the Senate moved through the day's votes, some lawmakers urged their colleagues
to hurry so they could begin their summer break or, in the case of Senator Pat
Roberts, Republican of Kansas, attend to other pressing matters.
"Could we please cut down on the rhetoric so that we might be able to
get along with the people's business and cast our votes?" Mr. Roberts asked.
"I make this request not only as a senator from Kansas but as the father
of a young lady that I will be walking down the aisle tomorrow."