GOP clashes over medical malpractice

House Republicans clashed Wednesday over a longtime GOP priority: limiting medical malpractice damages. 

At a Judiciary Committee markup, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) accused Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) of proposing legislation that would violate the Constitution. 

The panel was considering legislation sponsored by Gingrey, who does not sit on the committee and was not present, that would impose a $250,000 cap on non-economic medical malpractice damages. Poe, a former felony court judge and a member of the House Tea Party Caucus, said that violates the Constitution.

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He also warned he'd vote against the measure if it imposes caps on states that don't want them.

"I got problems with that," Poe said. "I think it's a violation of the Tenth Amendment."

Arguments about the Constitution have a special resonance in this Congress. 

Republicans had the House read the Constitution as one of their first actions upon winning a majority, and new House rules require lawmakers to provide justification in the Constitution for any bill they propose. 

Democrats sparked the fight with an amendment from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) that would prevent Gingrey's bill from overriding state constitutions that forbid medical malpractice caps. The bill, however, allows states that already have caps in place to retain them.

Johnson agreed to pull his amendment after Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tenn.) agreed to work with him after Wednesday's markup. The panel will resume consideration of the bill next week.

Johnson and Rep. Mel Watts (D-N.C.) baited Republicans by taking them to task for criticizing healthcare reform as a federal intrusion while proposing legislation that overrides state constitutions.

"I think President Reagan would be appalled," Johnson said.

Added Watts: "I thought it was the Republican members of our committee who believe in states' rights."

Smith, who has made tort reform one of his top five priorities, defended the law, saying tort reform falls under the purview of the Constitution's Commerce Clause.

"If Alabama and New York want to be a haven for malpractice suits, it's great for Texas," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas). "I'm reticent to allow Congress to impose our will on the states."


—This story was updated at 3:07 p.m.