Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Senate to vote Tuesday on asbestos debate

Senate to vote Tuesday on asbestos debate

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate set a vote for Tuesday on whether to consider a bill to halt asbestos lawsuits as senators hurled verbal brickbats over the legislation and the intense lobbying it has engendered.

"I can't stand this legislation," fumed Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who opposed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's attempt to bring the bill up for debate on Monday.

Asbestos fibers are linked to lung-scarring diseases, including cancer. Hundreds of thousands of injury claims have clogged courtroom dockets and helped push into bankruptcy proceedings more than 70 U.S. companies, including W.R. Grace & Co. and USG Corp..

Reid called the plan to create a $140 billion fund to compensate victims of asbestos-related diseases a "terrible" proposal. He said the bill was on the Senate floor only because lobbyists representing some companies that would benefit had spent over $144 million "lobbying to get it here."

His comments incensed the legislation's Republican sponsor, Pennsylvania's Sen. Arlen Specter.

"To accuse us to have been pawns in the hands of lobbyists is beyond slander, beyond insult, beyond outrage," Specter said.

The bill, sponsored by Specter and Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, would pay victims from a $140 billion fund financed by asbestos defendant companies and their insurers.

Frist wants the Senate to consider the bill this week, but under Senate rules, if a senator objects to a bill coming up, there must be a procedural vote. At least 60 votes will be needed to go ahead with the debate. The vote was set for Tuesday at 6 p.m. (2300 GMT), Frist said.

Reid said the legislation did not do enough to provide for victims of asbestos-related diseases, while limiting the asbestos liabilities of a number of large corporations.

He said he did not know if he had enough votes to stop the bill, but that five Republicans had told him they would side with him. There are 55 Republicans in the 100-seat Senate.

Specter countered that a fund would help asbestos victims who were unable to collect from bankrupt companies or forced to wait months to have cases heard in court.

Specter did not say whether he thought he could muster 60 votes to keep the bill on the floor. But his Democratic co-sponsor, Leahy, urged colleagues to support the bill.

"What we have achieved is a significant and needed step toward a more efficient and more equitable method to compensate asbestos victims," Leahy said.

After speaking, Leahy left the Senate to visit a new grandchild, but an aide said he would be back for the vote on Tuesday evening.

The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in May with three Democratic votes among its backers, but it has divided lawmakers from both parties, split industry groups and struggled to gain momentum.

Stocks of companies with asbestos liabilities closed lower on Monday afternoon. W.R. Grace shares were down 5.41 percent to $12.77 each. USG was down 5.36 percent to $91.20.