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Asbestos Trust Fund Plan Meets Resistance

By Albert B. Crenshaw
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 27, 2005; Page E03

A bill proposed by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that would set up a $140 billion trust fund to compensate people sickened by exposure to asbestos came under sharp attack from both sides yesterday.

Comments from both senators and witnesses at a Judiciary Committee hearing indicated that many embroiled in the controversy -- asbestos producers and their insurers on the one side, trial lawyers and unions on the other, and senators who agree with one side or the other -- are continuing to resist a compromise plan offered by Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and ranking minority member Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), left, and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) have offered a plan on how to compensate people sickened by asbestos exposure. (Jay Mallin -- Bloomberg News)

Democrats, including Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Russell Feingold (Wis.), questioned the adequacy of $140 billion and said they did not want to deprive victims of their right to sue if they are not paid and paid promptly.

Republicans, including Sens. John Cornyn (Tex.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), said they worried about the possibility of paying claimants who are not sick or whose ailments were caused by something besides asbestos, such as smoking.

Witnesses from key interest groups voiced their own opposition.

Said Margaret M. Seminario of the AFL-CIO, "On the fundamental issue of ensuring that the legislation will create a system that will, in fact, deal with victims fairly and pay timely compensation to those who are sick from asbestos disease, we can accept no compromise."

Said Craig A. Berrington of the American Insurance Association, "A national trust fund must provide an exclusive remedy for resolution of all asbestos claims. Otherwise, there is no real certainty or finality. . . . In fact, we could find ourselves paying both substantial sums into the fund and in the tort system for claims permitted to leak outside the fund."

Nonetheless, Specter said after the hearing that he would continue meeting with committee members to try to answer their objections and that he intends to go ahead with a markup tomorrow.

"If we are not successful, I do not see any time in the reasonably near future that we would revisit this issue," he said during the hearing.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) triggered a testy exchange with Specter when he complained that victims had not been given sufficient voice in crafting the bill.

Calling Durbin's complaint "out of line," Specter said, "This bill has not suffered from a lack of analysis." Congress has been debating how to compensate victims of asbestos exposure for more than 20 years.

Edward R. Becker, a former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit who at Specter's behest has spent months working with stakeholders trying to work out an agreement, said Specter and Leahy's bill would deal effectively with the key issues.

Becker said he expects that the trust would get up and running promptly if the bill is enacted and that it would deal quickly with claims, particularly those of the very ill.

He also said he thinks the funding would be adequate and that "leakage" would be minimal.

"It's a fair compromise," he said.

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