WASHINGTON – The Senate rejected an attempt Thursday to keep asbestos cases in the courts, removing one obstacle to the creation of a $140 billion trust fund for paying victims and ending their lawsuits.
Opponents quickly raised another obstacle. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., questioned the fund's future costs to taxpayers and asserted that the bill violates budget rules.
The bill would establish a privately funded trust fund, administered through the Labor Department, to compensate asbestos victims.
The fibrous mineral was commonly used until the mid-1970s in insulation and fireproof material. Its tiny fibers can cause cancer and other ailments when inhaled. Disease can take decades to develop.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, tried to kill the proposed trust fund and create, instead, new medical standards for bringing an asbestos case to court. He said lawmakers could weed out suits brought by people not yet sick from asbestos exposure and thin the mass of cases clogging the judicial system.
"I believe that the likelihood is far greater that the trust fund will sooner, rather than later, prove unsustainable and return us to the same broken tort system, only then leaving thousands of Americans in the wake of a failed government program wondering where to go and why they must now go back to court," he said.
The Senate voted 70-27 to shelve the proposal.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who sponsored the trust fund bill, said changing the standards for bringing a case to court can't help the thousands of people suffering deadly disease who have no one to sue.
Specter and other trust fund supporters say it could compensate veterans and former employees of bankrupt companies. They also argue that smaller companies could avoid bankruptcy by sidestepping lengthy court battles.
The White House gave the bill lukewarm support but expressed serious concerns about some parts of the legislation. Some critics question whether the trust fund, financed by asbestos manufacturers, users and insurers, would be emptied by claims.
Ensign said there remains the possibility that taxpayers will have to pick up the tab in future years if the trust fund runs out of money.
"I don't think that the underlying piece of legislation can be fixed to any great certainty to make sure that the taxpayers in the future aren't ending up holding a huge mess that includes a great deal of debt for future generations," Ensign said.
His objection requires 60 of 100 votes to overcome, with a vote expected next week.
Specter said private companies fill the trust fund, not the government, and that the trust fund's opponents had seized on a technicality.
"This is a convenient maneuver to defeat the bill," he said.