Senate Panel Passes Asbestos Lawsuit Protection Bill

A Senate committee on Thursday approved long-stalled legislation that would shield manufacturers and insurers from asbestos lawsuits (search).

The measure would create a $140 billion trust fund to compensate people sickened by exposed to asbestos, a fibrous mineral commonly used until the mid-1970s in insulation and fireproofing material. Asbestos has tiny fibers that can cause cancer and other ailments when inhaled. The diseases often take decades to develop.

Several Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee planned to oppose the legislation when it reached the full Senate. Their support in committee allowed the chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter (search), R-Pa., to advance the bill by a 13-5 vote.

"As currently written, I could not support the bill on the floor if it does not change," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Added Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.: "It does need substantial work."

Specter said, "We will do our best to make further accommodations and improve the bill."

Without full Republican support, the legislation probably would not pass the GOP-controlled Senate.

Business, labor and insurance groups are split on the legislation. It would require insurers and business groups to put $140 billion into a trust fund. As part of the deal, victims of asbestos-related illnesses would surrender their right to sue.

Supporters of the bill 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 that they would not be sued out of existence, the supporters say.