Istook asks for scoring of asbestos deal

After years of Senate negotiation to create a privately funded, government-run $140 billion trust to pay work-related asbestos claims, a prominent conservative in the House is raising concerns about the cost.

Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) wrote Monday to Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin asking him to score the asbestos-claims bill before it moves to the House.

House passage had, until now, been regarded as a secondary issue during the tense negotiation between Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and his panel members. Last month, the bill passed his committee by a vote of 13-5, with three Democrats in support. It awaits a floor vote in the Senate before moving to the House Judiciary Committee.

Istook said he sent his letter to the CBO out of concern that House members had, until now, been left out of the negotiations.

“If we wait until a bill comes over from the Senate, we’ll have a tough time changing the direction it might take,” Istook told The Hill yesterday.

He said the bill “might be a backdoor way of undermining the cutting that we’re trying to do on federal spending, especially mandatory spending.”

Istook said he has not yet approached other members of his conference or had any conversations with House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.). Instead, he said he wanted “to do fact-finding” before approaching any other members with his concerns.

In the letter, distributed as part of the Republican Study Committee’s weekly Internet update, Istook noted that he had not yet “established a position” on the bill but wrote that he had “been informed that [its] resolution fund would add billions of dollars to the public debt that would take decades to pay off.”

He also wrote that the bill’s “interest costs would consume much of the value of the fund” and that it would “be unable to pay all valid claims” and “create a gigantic, wasteful bureaucracy.”

Istook’s office had not yet received the CBO estimate, but a spokesman said the office would release the estimate once it is received.

Istook is a vocal fiscal conservative who last year enraged 21 fellow GOP lawmakers by temporarily cutting their transportation earmarks from the omnibus appropriations bill after they had written him a letter in support of Amtrak funding. Leadership eventually reinstated the projects.