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PROGRESS AT A STANDSTILL ON PATIENTS' RIGHTS BILL

The Bush White House and Senate Democrats moved in opposite directions on patients' rights legislation Wednesday, as the president reiterated his vow to veto any bill that offers patients an unlimited right to sue.

The Republican president summoned 25 GOP House moderates, including Rep. Jack Quinn of Hamburg, to the White House to tell them he will veto a bipartisan bill moving through the House, a measure many of them support.

President Bush has already said he will also veto parallel legislation designed to reform health maintenance organizations that is inching forward in the Senate, which is now controlled by the Democrats.

The clash over the right to sue means that the president will not have on his desk a bill that he can sign before the Fourth of July recess, which begins this weekend, as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had promised.

In the Senate, minority Republicans lost another two rounds in their effort to shield small-business owners from workers' health care lawsuits, as Democrats pushed their patients' rights bill.

The vote was 53-45 against an amendment by Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., that would have excluded employers with fewer than 50 employees from lawsuits filed by workers or family members covered by employer-sponsored health insurance.

The Senate tally was similar to one taken on another Republican amendment to protect employers from lawsuits.

Significantly, both votes were far short of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.

After the hourlong meeting at the White House, Quinn said the president "didn't ask for a show of hands for support, probably because he wouldn't get everybody."

The president won the support, however, of another moderate who attended: Rep. Amo Houghton of Corning.

Houghton said the major bipartisan House bill sponsored by Reps. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, and John Dingell, D-Mich., "has too many loopholes" giving patients the right to sue employers.

Houghton predicted an unlimited right to sue would either put many employers out of business or prompt them to cancel employees' health insurance plans.

Houghton, who was a director of two large firms that were hit hard by class-action lawsuits, said that few members of Congress have had the experience he has had with the effect of litigation.

"We just can't do that," said Houghton, who is among the moderates trying to craft a middle ground.

Bush said he has agreed to a "compromise between two positions."

Houghton and Quinn said Congress can't finish work on a compromise by this weekend when members are scheduled to go home. Their recess ends July 9.

Bush, as well as Houghton, supports legislation proposed by House Republicans Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut. This would permit lawsuits in state courts but would limit actual damages to $500,000, and bar punitive damages.

Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "There are some people in Congress who want a veto. . . . They are interested in politics rather than progress."

Asked whether he believes Democrats are playing politics with the issue, Bush replied: "I don't. I think the Democrats are hopefully trying to come up with a good piece of legislation."

Bush added that, when he was governor of Texas, he had signed legislation dealing with complaints over HMOs.

Bush signed into law many provisions of the state's patients' bill of rights, including protections for emergency care, access to specialists and other provisions in the competing bills pending in Congress.

But he allowed the most sweeping aspect of the bill -- giving patients the right to sue -- to become law without his signature.

News wire services contributed to this report.

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