WASHINGTON – A heated debate between the Republican Judiciary Committee chairman and the Senate minority leader previewed what can be expected Tuesday in debate over a controversial bill that would set up a $140 billion fund for people with illnesses linked to asbestos exposure.
Reid accused some Senate members of bowing to pressure from lobbyists to introduce the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2005. The latest round of asbestos litigation legislation was introduced last April, and passed the Judiciary Committee on a 13-5 vote in May. The bill won support from Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein and Herb Kohl.
Caught between Hurricane Katrina and two Supreme Court nominations last year, a final vote on the bill was delayed. Late last year, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., pledged to give more time to consider the bill in early 2006.
But Reid now says he won't agree to end debate of the bill, signaling an impending filibuster. In remarks on the Senate floor, he mentioned the lobbying scandal of Jack Abramoff.
"Washington has been run by the lobbyists. The Jack Abramoff scandal is no surprise," Reid said in his opening remarks.
Specter and fellow GOP senators have accused Democrats of obstructionism. The chairman described Reid's comments as "slanderous," and cited a Senate rule that "no senator in debate shall directly or indirectly, by any form of words, impute to another senator or other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator."
"To accuse us of being the pawns of the lobbyists is — is — is beyond slander, beyond insult," Specter said. "It's beyond outrage."
Specter, who has pushed for the bill for more than two years, also described as "slander" a packet recently released by Reid's office that named 33 GOP lawmakers for corruption and ethical lapses. Reid later apologized for singling out individuals.
The issue of asbestos reform has been around for years, with no clear solution to fix the problem in sight. Exposure to asbestos has been linked to many illnesses, including mesothelioma, a cancer known only to be caused from exposure to the microscopic bundles of fibers commonly used in insulation and other building materials.
Companies face billions of dollars of lawsuits while victims want retribution for illnesses linked to asbestos exposure.
"They were able to buy their way into the Senate paying for a bunch of lobbyists," Reid said about the companies that should be "jumping with joy" that the bill would save them from legal battles.
"I heard this ridiculous talk about this being a product of K Street. This product is not a product of K Street," Specter said.
The partisan debate on the Senate floor highlights challenges the bill faces in the coming months. It would require companies and their insurers — not taxpayers — to contribute $140 billion to a trust fund that would send payments to asbestos victims. It would halt all asbestos-related court cases.
Opponents, which include a coalition of companies and unions, have started a campaign against the legislation. The group has promoted national television commercials, urging viewers to contact their senators to oppose the measure and saying the fund can't support the number of claims made against it.
A test vote on the bill is expected late Tuesday to determine if the bill will be brought up for a vote. Reid's position to oppose the measure poses a lurking threat for a filibuster.
"What he's seeking to do is obstruct, and he's had a lot of practice at that," Specter said.
While President Bush, most Senate Republicans and some Democrats support the measure, Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said he might oppose the measure because he worries it would violate budget rules.
FOX News' Molly Hooper and The Associated Press contributed to this report.