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WE'RE ENCOURAGED by the progress to date on proposed product liability reform proposals in Congress; it's a good first step.

Before actual legislation is introduced, however, we hope lawmakers go a step further and toughen the proposal to give businesses more protection from unclear and inconsistent product liability laws. We should have a good indication of whether that will be the case soon-perhaps even this week-when Senate Republicans offer their response to the most recent proposal.

We realize lawmakers and product liability reform proponents must walk a fine line between seeking stronger reforms and losing the support of the president. But we also do not advocate passage of meaningless reforms simply to avoid President Clinton's veto pen. That would be a hollow victory at best and perhaps even counterproductive, as some reform supporters might cease their efforts because a toothless law has been enacted.

As we reported last week, a discussion draft reform proposal circulated on Capitol Hill by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., after months of negotiations with the White House, excludes some key features of the legislation approved by Congress last year but vetoed by President Clinton. Chief among the missing provisions are limits on joint liability for non-economic damages and a uniform formula for determining punitive damages in all product liability suits.

At a minimum, some limits on joint liability for non-economic damages should be contained in any product liability bill. It is inherently unfair that a defendant only minimally responsible for an injury be potentially stuck with all non-economic damages.

We'd also like to see guidelines from Congress providing limits on punitive damages, as the court system is offering businesses relatively little relief. Realistically, though, we know the current proposal to extend such limits only to very small businesses may be as good as it gets, at least for the time being.

One item now contained in the draft that we think does not belong is a provision that would provide a new subrogation right for workers compensation insurers against manufacturers of products that harm workers comp claimants. No one seems to be sure exactly what the provision would do. Even if they were, a federal product liability bill is not the place to shape workers comp law.

Although the proposal does not go far enough, we think it is an excellent start in yet another round of debate that has been going on for about two decades. What is on the table demonstrates good faith on the part of White House and congressional negotiators. If that spirit of cooperation can be nurtured to make the proposal's protections stronger, there appears to be a good chance that meaningful reform can finally be enacted.