- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Liberals and conservatives in the Senate joined together last night to stop legislation that would have created a massive trust fund for victims of exposure to asbestos.

Years in the drafting, the bill is disliked by conservatives who fear that the costs will be passed on to taxpayers and by liberals who worry that victims will lose their rights to sue companies that, however unwittingly, exposed workers to a substance now known to cause cancer.

The key vote, on a procedural issue, was initially 59-40 in favor, one short of the 60 votes required, effectively killing the bill. Ten Republicans joined 30 Democrats to block the measure.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, could have given the bill the needed 60th vote but missed last night’s roll call.

Once Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist realized that the bill would fail, he switched his vote to “no” for reasons of parliamentary procedure — giving himself the right to raise the bill for another vote. The final official result was 58-41.

The Tennessee Republican said he did so “to keep a heartbeat, at least, in this piece of legislation, because it is so important to victims, to our economy, to jobs.”

Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, a fiscal conservative, raised a point of order, saying that the legislation would break future spending caps, meaning 60 votes are required to approve the bill.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said after the vote that Mr. Inouye would have secured victory for the bill.

“As John Paul Jones said, ‘We have just begun to fight,’” he said. “Senator Inouye told me he would vote to overrule the point of order, which would have provided the 60th vote and victory, but he went home because his wife was sick. We will have him on the motion to reconsider, and we may change another vote or two, so we may win this one yet.”

After voting against the bill, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said: “I hope now we can work together in a bipartisan basis to find some accommodation, not to create a trust fund in an amount that’s never been established.”

Supporters argued, however, that the bill is a bipartisan one, authored by Mr. Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat.

The bill would create a $140 billion trust fund to compensate the victims of asbestos exposure. The money would come from the employers and their insurance companies.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, a supporter of the bill, criticized opponents of the bill for blocking the measure without offering an alternative.

“For the past decade, there has been a thundering silence from too many on the other side of the aisle,” said the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “They are quick to criticize what has been suggested, but not once in more than a decade have they proposed their own solution. Not once have they come up with one idea that might possibly help solve this crisis.”

Among the Republicans who bucked the leadership were some of the chamber’s most fiscally conservative members, such as Sen. Jim DeMint, a freshman from South Carolina.

“This bill fails to solve the real problem, which is our out-of-control junk-lawsuit system, and simply trades one flawed system for another,” he said.

“We have a serious problem with asbestos litigation that has already forced 70 American companies into bankruptcy and cost over 60,000 Americans their jobs. But creating a multibillion-dollar government entitlement program that punishes taxpayers and rewards trial lawyers is not the answer.”

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