By Laurie Kellman
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
The subject was a sober one, and new to the Senate floor: Should the chamber vote on a bill that would set up a $140 billion fund for people sickened by asbestos exposure?
Within minutes, the exchange spiraled into familiar election-year territory, with Democrats calling the legislation Republican payback to corporate lobbyists and GOP senators accusing the Democrats of obstruction.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) objected to allowing a vote on the bill. He spoke only a few moments before uttering the name of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
"Washington has been run by the lobbyists. The Jack Abramoff scandal is no surprise," Reid said in his opening remarks.
Corporations that, without the legislation, might be required to pay billions in legal awards to victims should be "jumping with joy," he added. "They were able to buy their way into the Senate paying for a bunch of lobbyists."
"Slander!" responded Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), whose stewardship of the bill for more than two years helped it survive the committee process to become the first new measure the Senate considered this year.
"To accuse us of being the pawns of the lobbyists is -- is -- is beyond slander, beyond insult," Specter said. "It's beyond outrage."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) promised the asbestos bill would be the first new bill considered by the Senate this year, but the measure is off to a troubled start, even with backing from President Bush and Republican leaders and Specter's personal appeal to more than 60 senators.
Under the measure, companies and their insurers would contribute $140 billion to a trust fund that would compensate victims of asbestos exposure. The measure would stop all asbestos-related court cases and spare defendants crippling jury awards.
A coalition of companies and unions has begun a campaign against the measure, saying, among other things, that the fund would not support the number of claims made against it. Democrats and several Republican senators also worry that taxpayers might have to pay if claims drained the trust fund.
Several procedural hurdles stand in the way. The toughest is a test vote today on whether to bring the bill up for a vote, a procedure that requires the support of 60 senators.
Even Specter is not predicting success. He made the argument that in forcing a test vote -- the way the Democrats did on the USA Patriot Act and judicial nominees -- Reid is acting on politics rather than the substance of the bill.
"What he's seeking to do is obstruct, and he's had a lot of practice at that," Specter said.
Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) is considering objecting on the grounds that the bill would violate budget rules. Specter said the fund would be wholly supported by private contributions, and no federal money.
For his part, Reid offered a hat-in-hand apology for casting aspersions on the motives of "my friend from Pennsylvania." As evidence of his high esteem for Specter, Reid offered a distinctly senatorial -- if backhanded -- compliment.
"I'm one of the few people around who have read his book," Reid said. "I enjoyed reading his book."