Future of Asbestos Bill Looks Iffy

Crowded out by the debate over immigration policy, the war in Iraq and tension over Iran, the asbestos reform bill is on Congress’s backburner, waiting for a new push.

But while it’s unclear whether there will be action on the bill in the coming months, opponents to the legislation are continuing to work to ensure the bill doesn’t get another chance.

The measure, called the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution, was sent back to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 14 after it fell short of the 60 votes needed in the full Senate to overcome an objection that it would violate budget rules by requiring federal funding without offsetting revenue.

Supporters now are concerned that, with more than a few hot potatoes already on their hands, Republicans may not be willing to fight for another controversial bill in an election year.
The bill, which was debated at length in the last session of Congress but never approved, would require businesses and insurers to set up a $140 billion trust fund for asbestos victims and limit companies’ liability. But victims complain that it would limit benefits to only those who were exposed to asbestos at work.

Congressional budget analysts have said the asbestos claims submitted could reach $150 billion.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., made it clear he’s not willing to bring the bill to a vote unless he’s sure it will be approved. He said he will not bring the bill back on the floor for a Senate vote unless 60 members are committed to support the motion to waive the budget point and to end any threat of a filibuster.

Political hot potato

That puts the next move back with the Judiciary Committee and Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who also is the sponsor of the bill. Specter did not return several phone calls to discuss whether he plans to continue his push to pass the legislation in the coming months.
But David Carle, a spokesman for Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, put the onus for action on Frist.

“He [Frist] can bring it [the bill] up at any time … It’s up to him to decide if and when to make than motion to reconsider and have a revote,” Carle said, who declined to provide details whether Specter and Leahy have the required 60 votes for the bill.
But one lobbyist who has followed the legislation said Specter and Leahy are mulling changes to increase the bill’s chance for approval.

He suggested the bill would be aimed at satisfying concerns of conservative Republicans while keeping Democrats happy, and would include changes such as the adoption of an amendment to limit small companies’ contributions to the trust fund.

Specter likely will use a Senate rule that allows him to send the bill directly to the floor and will likely do so after the mid-April recess, the source said.

Opposition is hardening

Two groups that oppose the bill are poised to fight any effort to revive it.

“Our coalition is monitoring the situation closely and we continue to urge that the Senate would reject this bill,” said Thomas O’Brien, chairman of the Coalition for Asbestos Reform, which represents 35 small companies and trade groups that oppose the bill.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog organization that analyses campaign finance issues, the coalition also includes Exxon Mobil and DuPont, as well as insurance companies, and has spent $140,000 lobbying Congress since it was formed last year.

“We have had meetings, we have been talking and … we are urging to go for a more reasonable approach that would focus on medical criteria,” O’Brien said.

He said the coalition plans to spend more money on lobbying against this bill. “We will do whatever we think it takes to make sure that S.852 does not reach passage in the Senate,” O’Brien said.

Chris Kannan, spokesman for Freedom Works, said the conservative think tank opposes the creation of a federal trust fund but favors the idea of asbestos reform and will continue to spend money on communication and other activities, including briefings on Capitol Hill.
“I do not see how Specter can get 60 people together to vote on this bill … it looks pretty sidelined,” Kannan said.

His skepticism is shared by Stephen Carroll, a senior economist with RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
“Maybe some people will become less concerned … if enough become like this, maybe we can move the bill,” he said.

“The biggest sticking point” is that nobody knows what the total cost is going to be, Carroll added.
The Asbestos Alliance, a special coalition of insurers, trade associations and asbestos defendant companies led by National Association of Manufacturers, declined to comment on its plans to continue lobbying for the bill’s passage.

Another group supporting the bill, the Asbestos Study Group, did not return phone calls requesting information. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the group includes Dow Chemical, Ford, General Electric, Pfizer, General Motors and Honeywell. It spent $17.5 million lobbying Congress since 2003