By Jeffrey Young - 05/31/06 12:00 AM EDT
Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) are renewing their relentless effort to secure Senate passage of a bill to replace the asbestos-litigation system with a $140 billion trust fund, but they continue to face considerable obstacles.
On Friday, Specter introduced a new version of the bill and again warned that the Senate faces a do-or-die moment. This bill represents his last stab at the issue, he vowed.
“If this amended bill is rejected, I do not see the agenda of the Senate Judiciary Committee revisiting this issue,” Specter, the panel’s chairman, said on the floor Friday. “Let me make clear that this is the last, best chance,” he said.
Brinksmanship may be the only available strategy. Those opposed to the Specter-Leahy bill are entrenched and formidable and have a successful track record.
Senate Democrats are all but united against the bill, despite Judiciary Committee ranking member Leahy’s intimate involvement in its drafting. A handful of conservative Republicans, such as Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), worry that that when the trust fund runs out the government will be left to pick up the tab.
Lobbying interests ranging from trial attorneys to labor unions to conservative tort-reform advocates have been able to counter the influence of the bill’s big-business proponents for three years.
The fundamental purpose of the legislation has not changed. The measure proposes the creation of a fund, financed by corporations and insurance companies, that would dole out compensation to victims of asbestos exposure. Currently, victims seek compensation through the courts.
Specter and Leahy sought to update the bill to address some specific concerns raised during the February floor debate. For example, among other changes, the latest bill includes a new formula to set how much smaller companies would have to pay into the fund. Some medium-size and small companies have complained that the original version would have cost them more than simply dealing with any asbestos-related lawsuits they face.
Although Specter has earned the gratitude of Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and many in the conference for his record as chairman, which includes the confirmations of two conservative Supreme Court justices and his recent role in advancing the immigration-reform bill, the chances of asbestos returning to the floor are slim.
Foremost among Specter’s challenges is meeting the onerous conditions Frist has placed on the bill’s return. When an earlier version narrowly failed to overcome a budgetary point of order raised by conservatives in February, Frist said there was only a slight chance the Senate would reconsider the bill. He specified that Specter and Leahy would need to produce a letter signed by 60 senators promising to vote against the point of order and in favor of the underlying legislation.
The majority leader’s office confirmed yesterday that Frist is maintaining that strict standard.
“If he can show that there is 60 senators behind this effort, then [Frist] will work to bring this back to the Senate floor,” a spokeswoman said.
Leahy himself identified another barrier to the Senate’s taking a fresh look at the bill: election-year politics. “I know that some partisans will claim that we should refrain from reaching across the aisle during an election year,” he said in a statement.
Supporters of the original bill quickly and predictably embraced the new version and issued statements laced with compliments for the Specter and Leahy and exclamations of optimism that tweaking the legislation would get it over the 60-vote threshold it has failed to meet.
“This indicates that the long-awaited and necessary solution to the asbestos-litigation crisis is still within our grasp this year,” reads a statement from the Asbestos Alliance that is attributed to National Association of Manufacturers Executive Vice President Michael Baroody. The business group is the leading force behind the Alliance, which includes the few companies (or their successors) that actually made asbestos products.
Likewise, the Asbestos Study Group fired off a press release calling the modified bill “a critical step toward a solution.” The group is a coalition of some of the largest corporations in the country that collectively share a massive liability exposure to asbestos claims.
But some opponents of the bill also resurrected their comments from the debate on the earlier version.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not softened his stance against the bill, a spokesman said. “Senator Reid continues to oppose the bill,” the spokesman said. “[Reid] is also confident that it will not pass the Senate this year,” he added.
“The fundamental problem with the proposed asbestos trust fund remains that it creates a brand new multibillion-dollar government program and does nothing to fix the problem in the courts,” former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said via e-mail through a spokesman for FreedomWorks, the conservative grassroots organization where Armey is chairman. “The new legislation does nothing to change the underlying problems of the original bill,” Armey said.
The Association of Trial Lawyers of America was more blunt.
“The legislation is nothing but another bailout for corporations that knowingly exposed millions of people to a deadly substance,” the group said in a statement. “Once again, this bill fails to treat victims fairly while making taxpayers, not the wrongdoers, foot the bill.”
Others that opposed the original bill, such as the AFL-CIO, said that they were still reviewing the changes.
Specter expects that the changes made to the bill will attract one or two more votes, he told the Bloomberg news service last week.
But the impact on the whip count is not immediately clear, and the most significant changes to the bill are based on language or concepts proffered by senators who voted to advance the bill in February, such as Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).