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WORD THAT the Clinton administration has created an interagency task force charged with negotiating a product liability reform bill is the best news on the reform front for a long time.

After all, it was only a few weeks ago that Democratic members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee refused to support a reform bill similar to one that many of them had promoted vigorously in the last Congress.

The reason for the change of heart given by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., and other erstwhile Democratic reform supporters was that not enough changes had been made to meet White House objections. The catch was that nobody could say exactly what all the objections were.

We hope that by naming a negotiating team-which includes Bruce Lindsay, President Clinton's close friend and deputy counsel, and Kathleen Wallman, chief of staff of the National Economic Council, as well as representatives of the Commerce and Justice departments and the Small Business Administration-we'll soon learn exactly what the White House wants (BI, June 2).

That's critical in terms of timing. The Senate Republican leadership wants to move quickly on reform legislation. In fact, floor debate over the bill approved by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee could begin as early as this week, with a vote coming before the end of the month.

Swift Senate action could spur the House into action as well. Although the House Judiciary Committee has held hearings on the issue, little else has happened on that side of Capitol Hill thus far this congressional session.

We sincerely hope that by naming a task force-even an informal one-the administration is finally signaling a willingness to make a good faith effort to accomplish what it has claimed to have wanted for a long time: enactment of balanced product liability reform.

That's a goal we share, and one risk managers and the business community as a whole have been pursuing since 1981.

Reform isn't-and shouldn't be-a politically partisan issue, as evidenced by the presence of such liberal lawmakers as Sen. Rockefeller and Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., in the forefront of reform efforts for many years. The task force could serve to eliminate some of the political partisanship that has distorted the debate this year.

Provided that the task force doesn't prove to be a stalling tactic for the White House to drag out the negotiation process to the point that action is impossible during the current congressional session-and we ought to know relatively quickly if that's the case-reform proponents should view its creation as the best hope in a long time of finally enacting meaningful and long-overdue reform legislation.