WASHINGTON – Fourteen months after the attacks on New York and Washington, Congress moved to finish legislation to shield the insurance industry from the catastrophic costs of future terrorist onslaughts.
The bill before the Senate Tuesday would have the government cover up to $90 billion in the first year of the measure's three-year lifetime to cover claims from future attacks.
President Bush has urged Congress to pass a terrorism insurance bill since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, saying the inability of companies to get affordable insurance for large construction projects is costing the economy thousands of jobs.
The House passed a bill a year ago, but was unable to come to terms with the Senate on a formula for government protections. Democrats also resisted Republican efforts to ban punitive damage awards in civil lawsuits related to terrorist attacks.
Bush personally stepped in after the election, contacting House Republican leaders and insisting that Congress complete the bill in the lame-duck session before adjourning for the year.
The president bowed to Democratic demands for no limits on punitive damages, which many Republicans consider a boon to trial lawyers usually allied with Democrats. But GOP leaders vowed to revisit the issue next year, when they will again enjoy majorities in the House and Senate.
The House approved the compromise on a voice vote last week, and the Senate was ready to follow suit, following passage of the president's other top priority for the lame-duck session, creation of a Homeland Security Department.
"We believe this action will create stability in reinsurance markets, and will be very helpful for insurance markets and the overall economy," said Rodger D. Lawson, president of the Alliance of American Insurers, after the House vote.
The government wouldn't step in on any claims less than $5 million. Insurance companies would pay a deductible in 2003 equal to 7 percent of the premiums they received the previous year. The deductible would rise to 10 percent in 2004 and 15 percent in 2005. The federal government would then cover 90 percent of everything above the deductible with insurance companies paying the other 10 percent.
Federal payments would be capped at $90 billion the first year, $87.5 billion the second year and $85 billion in the final year of the program.
The measure does not cover the Sept. 11 attacks, which generated an estimated $40 billion in claims.
Consumer groups opposed the bill, saying insurance companies don't need a prospective taxpayer bailout despite their pleas of economic distress. In the first six months of 2002, insurers reported a 66.4 percent increase in profits, according to the Consumer Federation of America.