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THIS YEAR'S PUSH to enact comprehensive product liability reform is off to an inauspicious start after every Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee voted against the Product Liability Reform Act of 1997.

In fact, the most influential Democratic co-sponsor of past product liability reform bills-Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV-cast his vote against the bill, albeit apologetically. The West Virginia Democrat said that while he continues "to strongly support product liability reform," he didn't think it was "realistic" to vote for a bill that President Clinton would surely veto.

Sen. Rockefeller is correct that pushing ahead with a bill destined to expire on the president's desk doesn't do anyone any good. At the same time, we believe that reform advocates also won't help their cause if they water the reforms down in an effort to win the president's approval.

Reform backers have already made several changes to the bill to address some of the objections President Clinton raised last year, when he vetoed the legislation. In explaining his "no" vote to the current proposal, Sen. Rockefeller said legislators hadn't gone far enough to meet the president's concerns.

Maybe there is room for more compromise, but therein lies the danger. Compromising too much on significant parts of the bill, such as the punitive damages formula, threatens to undermine the usefulness of the legislation.

In addition, while reformers may give ground to overcome some of last year's objections, there's nothing to stop the president from raising brand new objections backed by a veto threat. And so on, and so on.

Therefore, we believe that reform advocates need to know exactly what the president will or will not accept before they start compromising further.

Product liability reform is far too important an issue to businesses, insurers and the competitiveness of the United States to be endlessly whittled down and delayed as proponents scramble to meet objection after objection.

It's up to businesses, insurers and reform advocates to find out what the president wants, make a good faith effort to meet those demands without gutting reform, and send him a bill as soon as possible. If the president is sincere in wanting to sign a product liability reform bill-as he has claimed in the past-he will negotiate with the pro-reform forces in good faith before a bill reaches his desk.

This year's reform drive has gotten off to an unfortunate start, but that's no reason for reformers to begin surrendering their principles on the basis of an implied presidential veto threat. Product liability reform is simply too vital a cause to be doomed before the effort to enact reasonable legislation has truly begun.