- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

The Senate Judiciary Committee is finalizing details for a court-run trust fund to pay victims of asbestos exposure.

Democrats and Republicans agree on the need for a trust — funded by insurance companies and the corporations that used asbestos in manufacturing fireproof products — to be doled out to victims who developed cancer through exposure to the carcinogenic fibers.

But for months, both sides have argued over the particulars of the bill. And both sides are backed by huge political contributors.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has proposed a $108 billion account to be distributed by a special court. The bill also would protect the companies that dealt in asbestos from further litigation.

Already, more than 60 companies have filed for bankruptcy over asbestos claims, Mr. Hatch said. His plan, which is supported by the companies held liable, strives to avoid additional bankruptcies while paying off victims.

“We need to ensure that the truly sick get compensated first and foremost,” Mr. Hatch said recently. “But we can do that without bankrupting companies, so that jobs and pensions will not suffer needlessly.”

Democrats say the legislation lets companies off the hook without guaranteeing that all victims will see any money.

“The bill guarantees businesses a lifetime of absolute legal and financial certainty,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, told colleagues at a hearing earlier this month. “But it leaves asbestos victims completely out of luck if the trust fund runs out of money at any time in the next 50 years.”

Sens. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, and Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, also have complained that the bill fails to cover victims outside the workplace, such as those who suffer from so-called “take home” exposure, where asbestos fibers caught in workers’ clothing leaves the workplace.

Behind the Democrats are labor unions, who are lobbying for more money to be placed in the fund, among other things.

The Hatch bill, AFL-CIO general counsel Jon Hiatt said in a prepared statement, “is merely a vehicle to relieve businesses and insurers of hundreds of billions of dollars of liability while significantly short-changing the asbestos victims of the fair compensation they are due.”

Several on the Democrats’ side argue that the trust fund should be more in the ballpark of $250 billion.

Mr. Hatch said he remains open to amending his bill, but has insisted it be done without killing the companies that today still employ thousands of people.

“This bipartisan bill, as I noted when we introduced it, is not without flaws,” Mr. Hatch told colleagues at one recent hearing on the matter. “It will not help anyone to point out flaws without suggesting reasonable and workable solutions. In short, we want constructive criticism if there is going to be any criticism.

“If we all commit to that and to be open on solutions,” he said, “we will get a bill and get one soon.”

The bill is scheduled for committee negotiations on Thursday and could be voted on in the committee as early as next week.

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