- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

The Senate voted 98-1 yesterday to move forward with a bill to halt asbestos lawsuits and create a $140 billion trust fund for people sick from asbestos-related diseases.

The bill now will move to the floor for its first debate, expected to take place over the next two weeks. Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, voted against, while Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, did not vote.

Despite its progress, the bill faces stiff opposition.

Shortly before the vote began, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, dropped his objection to the bill and said he wanted the debate to proceed even though he remained opposed to the legislation.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and chief sponsor of the legislation, tried to reassure opponents that they would still have a voice before a final vote.

“We are open for business to improve and change the bill,” he said.

The proposed legislation is intended to end lawsuits that have bankrupted companies such as Columbia, Md., chemical manufacturer W.R. Grace & Co., wallboard maker USG Corp. and 75 other companies.

Companies and their insurers that could be sued for exposing people to asbestos would contribute the $140 billion that would be used to compensate victims. In return, the companies would be shielded from further liability.

Asbestos, a fibrous mineral used to make brakes and insulation, causes cancer and respiratory ailments.

The legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2003. Victims of asbestos exposure would receive $25,000 to $1.1 million, depending on the severity of their illness.

Some Democrats have said $140 billion is not enough for the fund.

Republicans say the required industry contributions would hurt small and medium-sized businesses that have bought insurance to cover asbestos liability.

Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, is considering filing a procedural motion, which would take 60 votes to overcome, on the grounds that the bill would affect the budget in violation of the rules.

Mr. Specter said no taxpayer money would be used for the fund or its expenses.

Democratic opponents cite a December Congressional Budget Office report that concluded there is a “significant likelihood” the fund would not raise enough money to pay claims, expenses and the cost of borrowing an estimated $8 billion during a 10-year startup.

Opponents also warned that if the fund fails to provide adequate compensation, the asbestos victims could sue through the courts, which would undermine efforts by Congress to limit further liability.

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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