WASHINGTON – Opponents of a $140 billion trust fund for asbestos victims forced Senate leaders to withdraw it Tuesday, but its sponsors said they would bring it back up. Next time, they predicted, the bill would pass.
"As John Paul Jones said, we have just begun to fight," declared Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
The 58-41 vote to send the bill back to the Judiciary Committee was a severe setback. Opponents said the fund would be drained by claims against it, leave taxpayers liable and violate federal budget rules.
The bill's supporters needed 60 votes to keep the measure alive on the Senate floor. They had 59 before Frist, R-Tenn., switched his vote at the last minute in a procedural move that allows him to bring it up again.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote. Specter said Inouye would have been the 60th vote that would have kept the vote alive.
"He went home because his wife was sick," Specter said. "We will have him on the motion to reconsider and we may change another vote or two so we may win this one yet."
The cliffhanger vote followed a furious lobbying effort on the Senate floor.
The bill, sought by many manufacturers and their insurers, would end decades of lawsuits that have bankrupted more than 70 businesses. According to supporters, tens of thousands of people sickened by asbestos and related diseases have gone uncompensated.
Drawing on his seniority, Specter issued a personal appeal on behalf of the bill.
"Give me the benefit of the doubt," he told the Senate moments before the vote.
Opponents and supporters crossed party lines, and businesses and labor unions were equally split. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the bill is so flawed that even two weeks of debate weren't enough to get it into acceptable shape.
"It is doomed to fail," Reid said.
The measure would have forced defendant companies that dealt with asbestos-containing products to contribute to a $140 billion trust fund from which claims would be paid to those sickened by asbestos. In exchange for payouts of up to $1.1 million, based on age and exposure level, victims would drop all asbestos-related court proceedings.
Such legislation would have spare companies that would be driven out of business by legal fees and lawsuits, supporters say. More than 70 companies have been forced into bankruptcy over asbestos litigation.
Asbestos is a fire-retardant material made up of fibers that cause illness when inhaled. The illness can lie dormant for decades, meaning future asbestos victims might be seeking damages for years to come.
For different reasons, liberals and conservatives and interest groups across the political spectrum have united to defeat the bill by setting up procedural hurtles.
The showdown vote Tuesday focused on the bill's impact on the federal budget. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., challenged the legislation on the grounds that claims would drain the fund and leave taxpayers holding a bill for billions of dollars.
Senate procedure required 60 votes to overcome Ensign's point of order. The bill's supporters said the challenge was a thinly veiled effort to kill the measure without drawing blame in a midterm election year.
"This point of order has become ... a backdoor way of killing this bill," said Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt.
Well past lunchtime, Specter and others counting votes said both sides were within a few votes of succeeding.
Supporters insist that even though the Department of Labor would administer the fund, federal money would not be used for any costs. As evidence, they offered a new study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that found such a fund would not affect the federal deficit.
But opponents said the report leaves open the possibility of borrowing federal money if the trust fund runs dry.
"There is an enormous amount of uncertainty about the potential costs under the proposed amendment," CBO acting director Donald B. Marron wrote to senators Tuesday.
Beyond Ensign's challenge, other hurdles awaited the bill. Sixty senators must agree to end debate and bring it to a vote, a procedure likely later in the week, Frist said.