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Hope for Asbestos Bill Blossoms, Then Withers

By Albert B. Crenshaw
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page E02

As the legislative day dawned on Capitol Hill yesterday, an unexpected ray of hope arrived with it: A bill to resolve the asbestos crisis, pronounced dead a month ago, appeared to be alive once more.

"I think that we are very close to a deal," Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the leading advocate of a legislative solution, said at a news conference.

The stock market took heart, and shares of such asbestos-tainted companies as W.R. Grace & Co. and USG Corp. rose briskly.

Specter said he had begun circulating his 300-page bill, and early returns were good. Some key Democrats said they could support it.

"It's a voluminous bill, so it's going to take a little time for people to read it," Specter added. "And I still do not have the final results until senators take a look at it, but I'm more than hopeful, I'm optimistic we'll have a bill which will get out of committee and beyond."

But by dinnertime, it appeared the measure had stalled, as its predecessors had in previous years.

A meeting of committee Republicans had ended in disagreement, with Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) objecting to certain provisions. Specter scheduled another meeting for next Tuesday while staff discussions continue.

The issue of how to compensate victims of asbestos, a fibrous mineral used in fireproofing and other industrial applications that causes cancer and other ailments when inhaled, has proved one of the most intractable faced by lawmakers in recent years. It has pitted trial lawyers and labor unions against corporations that produced or used asbestos, along with the companies' insurers.

Lawsuits by victims have bankrupted dozens of companies and threatened to choke the courts.

Most of the recent bills have centered on creation of a national trust fund to be financed by the companies and their insurers. But while both sides have indicated that the principle of a trust fund is acceptable, both have found specific proposals unacceptable.

Specter said he had tried to meet those objections in various ways. His bill would provide for a trust fund of $140 billion but would allow victims to return to court if the money ran out. But it would restrict them to federal courts except under certain circumstances.

And the chairman also indicated that the bill would tighten the definitions of asbestos-related injury.

In the past year or so, the litigation climate has shifted. Some courts have been restricting asbestos injury claims, while others have told plaintiffs they will have to stand by until such time as they can show clear injury. Some states, such as Ohio, have tightened their laws.

This may have been a factor in the willingness of some Democrats to accept Specter's bill, even though its funding would be less than critics said is necessary. But it also appears to be stiffening resistance by some Republicans. The group of objectors was said to be seeking more restrictive funding rules for any potential trust fund.

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