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Specter Advances Measure to Settle Asbestos Claims

$140 Billion Trust Proposed

By Albert B. Crenshaw
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page E02

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) moved ahead yesterday with his effort to resolve the national asbestos litigation tangle, introducing a bill that would create a $140 billion trust fund to pay victims' claims while barring some smokers from benefits and curbing payouts to trial lawyers.

The measure, which had been circulating in draft form for a week, remains strongly opposed by insurers and some victim groups. Also, some members of Specter's own party are unhappy with the proposal, indicating they think it is too generous.

Sen. Arlen Specter said he had reached agreement with ranking Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy on the bill's core. (J. Carrier -- Bloomberg News)

Specter, after a private door meeting with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Republican Judiciary Committee members late yesterday, said he expected the panel to take up the measure within two weeks.

Specter said later on the Senate floor that he and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee, had agreed on "core principles" that "we will work jointly to retain," though "we are open to suggestions and amendments and modifications which do not impact on these core provisions."

The bill promises funding of $40 billion in the first five years from asbestos producers and users and their insurers, and an additional $20 billion of borrowing authority. Additional funding would be provided later; the trust fund would be scheduled to last 30 years. It also promises prompt payment of "exigent" claims (those in which the victim has a life expectancy of less than a year), and two years for others, or victims would be allowed to return to the courts.

It also would allow victims to returns to the courts should total funding prove inadequate.

And the measure would exclude people with lung cancer who also were smokers unless they can show a connection between their cancer and asbestos.

Insurers are unhappy that the measure might allow victims to return to the courts. Earlier this week, insurance groups wrote Specter reiterating their "firm position that the [trust] fund must provide the exclusive remedy for resolution of asbestos claims."

At the same time, other groups began circulating estimates that the $140 billion would not be enough to provide adequately for all asbestos victims.

Specter said he believes $140 billion "provides a considerable cushion" above the likely total of claims, and Leahy added that the bill would offer "a better, more efficient way" of paying claims.

Specter has also said on several occasions that unless the Senate acts soon, the press of other Senate business later in the year will make chances of passing a bill very slim.

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