Sen. Frist gambles on asbestos legislation

The last, best hope for the pending asbestos trust-fund bill appears to be that senators who oppose it may nevertheless vote it out of the Senate so that they keep the issue alive rather than killing it.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) brought the bill to the floor yesterday in a bid to move legislation that does not have clear majority support and has been beset on all sides by lobbying and senator-to-senator pressure.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has put his caucus on notice that stopping the bill is a vital objective, as he has repeatedly attempted to make the content of the measure and the timing of the floor debate part of his ongoing effort to link the GOP to the big-business lobby, particularly the large manufacturing concerns that are the legislation’s strongest supporters.

As debate on the bill approached, K Street and Hill sources agreed that no one has a definitive vote count. Although the Judiciary Committee approved the bill with bipartisan, though mostly Republican, support, several members of the panel said they were voting only to keep the process moving.

The lead sponsors of the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution (FAIR) Act are Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The measure would create a $140 billion trust fund, derived from contributions by businesses and insurance companies, to pay medical claims to people injured by asbestos. Lawsuits seeking damages for lung ailments linked to asbestos exposure have proliferated for decades.

When raising the bill on the floor yesterday, Frist emphasized the last opportunity to address asbestos liability might be this year.

President Bush also weighed in last week. “It’s time to send a clear message to investors and markets and employees that we’ve got to have a legal system in regards to asbestos that’s fair to those who have actually been harmed, and reasonable for those who need to pay,” he told a crowd outside the 3M headquarters in Minnesota.

USG Corp., a Fortune 500 building-supply company, illustrated the potential impact of the legislation when it announced to investors last week that its new asbestos liability trust fund would cost nearly $4 billion through next year without the FAIR Act but only $900 million if the bill were enacted.

Frist’s gambit is viewed by some on K Street as a way to see who blinks first by bringing the bill to the floor early in the year despite the many doubts about success.

“The presence of a deadline is sometimes the only thing” that compels the Senate to take action, said Larry Fineran, vice president of regulatory and legal reform policy at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which has been one of the most aggressive backers of the bill.

“In a sense, they’re calling the question,” referring to a parliamentary move to end debate and bring the issue to a vote, said Bill Samuel, legislative director of the AFL-CIO. The labor organization does not support the bill.

Senators, especially Republicans, could be persuaded to vote to advance the legislation as a way to postpone taking a final stand, hoping that the House and an eventual conference committee might produce a more appealing bill. The House so far has stayed on the sidelines.

Forcing action also allows Frist to remove a difficult item from his agenda early this legislative year, which will be shorter because of elections in November. Even if the measure does not make it out of the Senate, Frist would be freed to focus on other election-year priorities.

If the bill fails, the asbestos issue will not soon resurface, some contended. “People are tired,” said AFL-CIO Director of Safety and Health Peg Seminario. “This has been a long haul.”

“They’ve all spent an awful lot of time on this,” said Michael Baroody, NAM’s executive vice president.

Frist and Specter’s placing the bill before the Senate without knowing where the votes are is not a sign that senators who favor the bill have given up securing its passage, Baroody said: “This is not an exercise people are going through.” He added that the manufacturers have been “encouraged to believe” that the bill would pass.

But lobbyists working the legislation expect its fate to be settled on the Senate floor and not before. “It’s not going to be one of the most clean debates,” Fineran remarked. “It’s basically a crapshoot.”

Reid is trying to block cloture. He said, “This bill is not ready for floor consideration by a long stretch. There are just too many unanswered questions.”

An earlier asbestos trust-fund bill failed on a cloture vote in 2004.

Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) could slow the bill via a budgetary point of order targeting the possibility that the federal government could be left holding the bag if the trust fund ran dry.

If Frist and Specter achieve cloture and survive points of order that require supermajorities, a complex floor debate awaits. Lobbyists predict that senators opposing the bill will introduce so-called “poison-pill” amendments designed to derail it.

“Given how fine the line is … one amendment from either side can really swing votes” on final passage, said Jeff Dircksen, director of congressional analysis for the National Taxpayers Union, which opposes the bill.

A Democratic leadership aide said that the leadership is confident that the bill will go down. The leadership does not know whether it can block cloture but was sure the bill did not have enough votes to pass, as of yesterday.

Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is leading the effort to unify Democrats, along with Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Joseph Biden (Del.).