Specter Moves Ahead With Asbestos Suit Bill

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (search) said Tuesday he plans to move ahead with his legislation aimed at ending asbestos (search) liability lawsuits in exchange for a $140 billion victims trust fund, despite concerns from fellow Republicans.

After a closed-door meeting with Judiciary Committee Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., Specter, R-Pa., said his committee would take up and possibly vote on the asbestos bill in the next two weeks.

Several committee Republicans — including Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Sen. John Coburn of Oklahoma and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas — said their concerns would have to be accommodated to get their support because they would not support the bill as written. They added that they would continue working with Specter in hopes of reaching a compromise.

"This is too important to give up," said Cornyn, who thought the full Republican caucus also would be divided on whether to support Specter's bill. "But here again it's the beginning of the process and there's some opportunity by negotiation and amendment to address some of the concerns. Certainly there will be trade-offs, but right now we're not there."

Specter said he expected to be able to work the problems out, although he and other Judiciary Republicans would not say what problems worried the GOP senators.

"I expect the core provisions to stay the same, but there are a number of items that have been raised by other Republicans on the committee which I think can be accommodated," Specter said.

Without full Republican support, the legislation is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled Senate.

Business, labor and insurance groups also are split on the legislation, which would require insurers and business groups to put $140 billion into a trust fund in exchange for ending the lawsuits. In exchange for the fund, asbestos victims would give up their right to sue.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was commonly used until the mid-1970s in insulation and fireproofing material. It has tiny fibers that can cause cancer and other ailments when inhaled, but the diseases often take decades to develop.

Senators say asbestos liability is driving companies out of business and leaving victims with little or no money for medical bills. A trust fund would speed money to those people and assure companies they would not be sued out of existence, supporters of the plan say.