WASHINGTON -- Leading Senate Republicans abandoned their effort to pass a broad overhaul of the nation's civil litigation system yesterday, after they twice tried and failed to bring it to a vote on the Senate floor.
The action came after President Clinton mounted one of his sharpest attacks yet on the Republican legislative agenda and threatened to veto the measure if it passed in its current form.
There is now little likelihood the proposal will succeed without a major reworking by Republicans. They needed 60 votes to end a filibuster by opponents of the measure, but in their two attempts they failed to get even a simple majority. One motion attracted only 46 votes, the other 47.
The legislation would limit damage awards in all civil cases in both state and federal courts.
Mr. Clinton, who had expressed general displeasure with the bill, was far more blunt yesterday.
In muscular language, he said that the measure might be called "the Drunk Drivers Protection Act of 1995" and asserted that it would protect rapists, child abusers, drunken drivers, despoilers the environment and even "perpetrators of terrorist acts and ,, hate crimes."
The president suggested that he would support a limited measure to curtail punitive damages in lawsuits involving faulty products but not legislation as amended by the Senate vote Wednesday.
Yesterday's votes put off until next week at the earliest any further consideration of the issue on the Senate floor.
But more importantly, it created new uncertainty as to whether the Senate would join the House in moving to limit both the number of lawsuits brought in the country and also the damages awarded in the suits that do make it to court.
Republican sponsors of the current bill hurriedly conferred about how they might reduce the scope of the legislation to attract the 60 votes needed to end debate.
The House, energized by its new Republican majority, swiftly passed sweeping legislation last month to overhaul the civil litigation system, but if the Senate Republicans fail to push their measure through, the entire effort to change the legal system could fail.
At the least, the action yesterday left the situation in confusion.
Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the Judiciary Committee chairman, was a sponsor of the Senate bill along with Majority Leader Bob Dole. And Mr. Hatch was also a sponsor of an amendment to expand the original Senate measure so that it would match the proposals passed by the House.
But last night, he conceded that his plans would have to be scaled back. "We may have to do this incrementally," he said. The changes in the bill that aroused the president's objections were the result of the effort led by Mr. Hatch and Mr. Dole to limit punitive damages on all civil lawsuits. The original bill would have limited caps on punitive damages to lawsuits involving harm from faulty products.
Under the bill as now written, punitive damages, usually awarded for especially outrageous behavior, would be limited in any lawsuit against local governments, companies, criminals and even organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, which are often sued by their victims.
Mr. Clinton said that the Senate "should reserve its compassion for the people who deserve it." He added: "If this bill comes to my desk as it is now written, I will veto it."
Consumer groups, who along with the nation's trial lawyers have fought strongly against the legislation, were heartened by the votes but said they continued to see a threat in even a narrower product-liability bill.
Business groups have pushed for the proposals. The two sides carried on a relentless lobbying campaign in the Capitol until the votes.
Mr. Dole, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, "is now in a bind," said consumer activist Ralph Nader. "He has to get a bill through. They'll strip away one provision after another until he gets it."
Saying various industries will try to protect their pieces of the measure, Mr. Nader added, "The sharks are now circling one another."