Specter, Leahy prepare for vote but have no agreement on asbestos bill yet

The chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee have tipped off colleagues that a floor vote on their asbestos trust-fund bill could take place this month, but lobbyists on both sides of the issue aren’t sure a vote will come to pass that soon.

Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) might be jumping the gun, lobbyists said.

The substance of the bill itself remains unsettled, K Street sources emphasized, so questions regarding vote counts, aggressive lobbying and public-relations campaigns are premature.

Although the committee passed the bill on a 13-5 vote in June with the backing of all 10 Republicans at the markup and three Democrats, that support was only conditional and senators said their final support once the bill hits the floor would depend on the outcome of continuing negotiations. Interest among House Republicans for the Specter-Leahy approach, which would create a trust fund for victims of asbestos-related illnesses, is perceived as virtually nonexistent.

The AFL-CIO, which opposes the legislation, also is still focused on negotiations about the content of the bill, said the labor union’s legislative director, Bill Samuel. The union is far from preparing for a floor fight, he said.

“We don’t see the necessity of ginning up a full campaign” targeting the entire Senate, Samuel said.

But that’s not to say that the union won’t fight if a bill resembling Specter-Leahy reaches the floor with a chance to pass, he added.

The Senate’s schedule is stacked with enough contentious matters — ranging from hurricane relief to appropriations to entitlement cuts — that some observers predict Specter and Leahy are too optimistic about the bill’s prospects.

Getting something done this year, let alone this month, may be impossible, said one lobbyist with knowledge of the negotiations. Specter and Leahy are not close to the 60 votes needed to advance the bill over objections from stalwart opponents who would be sure to offer numerous amendments, both germane and not, the lobbyist said.

Nevertheless, Specter and Leahy circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter Friday advising senators “on the possibility, perhaps likelihood, that we could secure floor time in October,” according to the letter. They also asked senators to notify them of any amendments they plan to offer. They had received no replies as of yesterday afternoon.

Asbestos has been a major priority for Specter since he became chairman, so much so that he has said that not even the nominations of two Supreme Court justices would keep him from reaching that goal.

“There is plenty of time to address asbestos, as there are not dates set” for hearings on Harriet Miers’ nomination to the high court, William Reynolds, Judiciary Committee communications director and legal counsel, wrote in an e-mail. An October vote is a “realistic possibility,” he asserted.

The measure would create a $140 billion trust fund, primarily financed by businesses, to provide payouts to cancer victims who trace their illnesses to asbestos exposure. Since evidence surfaced in the 1980s about the harmful effects of asbestos, the courts have been swamped with legal claims.

Specter and Leahy are not the only ones looking for an alternative to lawsuits, but their legislation has attracted considerable opposition.

Organized labor and consumer groups oppose the trust fund mainly because they say it would lead to inadequate awards. Some business interests complain that the trust fund would lead to higher costs for companies with less exposure to asbestos liability. The unlikely group of strange-bedfellow opponents also includes fiscal conservatives, trial lawyers and tort-reform advocates.

Powerful business lobbying organizations that are part of the Asbestos Alliance, such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, which view the bill as a way to limit their long-term costs while providing some compensation to the cancer sufferers, are lining up with Specter and Leahy.

Despite the apparently tepid response to the letter on K Street, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said that the conservative grassroots could be spurred to action by even the narrow prospects of the trust-fund bill’s passing the Senate.

The letter itself might be enough to trigger action by the members of his organization, he said.

“We are geared up,” Armey remarked.

But, he said, “We have to step up our efforts” if Specter and Leahy are planning a move. Armey co-chairs the groups FreedomWorks and Citizens for a Sound Economy and says his anti-trust-fund coalition boasts 700,000 members.

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