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Supporters Battle to Revive Asbestos Bill

Sponsors of a sidelined bill for a $140 billion fund for asbestos victims are vowing to revive it, but it's uncertain when — or if — Senate leaders will find time to reconsider the measure.

"We talked about bringing it up again," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said of conversations early Wednesday with Majority Leader Bill Frist, who sets the Senate schedule.

That was the most Specter could say with certainty of the bill's prospects this year, a far cry from the Judiciary Committee chairman's declaration the night before that "we have just begun to fight."

A spokesman for Frist said the Tennessee Republican is still considering the bill's prospects.

"The leader has not closed the door to putting asbestos back on the Senate floor, and will be working closely with" Specter, said Eric Ueland, Frist's chief of staff.

In a cliffhanger vote late Tuesday, the bill fell two short of the 60 votes required to overcome a hurdle erected by the bill's opponents, forcing its sponsors to shelve it.

Specter said the dramatic 58-41 defeat was a case of bad luck. He and other sponsors of the bill had been unaware that one supporter, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, would miss the vote due to his wife's illness. Seeing that without Inouye the bill would fall one short of 60, Frist changed his vote at the last minute in a procedural move that allows him to return the bill to the Senate floor.

"We lost under the most extraordinary circumstances," Specter said.

But no date has been set for the bill's return to the floor, Specter said.

The bill, years in the making, has been troubled from the start by opposition from across the political spectrum.

Sought by many manufacturers and their insurers, the bill 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 not been compensated.

Opponents said the fund would be drained by claims against it, leave taxpayers liable and violate federal budget rules.

Drawing on his seniority as chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, Specter issued a personal appeal.

"Give me the benefit of the doubt," he told colleagues 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 was so flawed that even two weeks of debate weren't enough to fix it.

The measure would have forced defendant companies that dealt with asbestos-containing products to contribute to a $140 billion trust fund to pay claims to those sickened by asbestos.

In exchange for payouts of up to $1.1 million based on age and level of exposure, victims would drop all asbestos-related court proceedings.

Such legislation would spare companies that supporters say would be driven out of business by legal fees and lawsuits.

Asbestos is a fire-retardant material with fibers that cause illness when inhaled. The illness can lie dormant for decades, meaning future asbestos victims might seek damages for years to come.

For different reasons, liberals, conservatives and interest groups across the political spectrum united to defeat the bill by setting up procedural hurdles.

Tuesday's vote focused on the bill's effect on the federal budget. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., challenged the legislation on grounds that claims would drain the fund and leave taxpayers with the bill.

Senate procedure required 60 votes to overcome Ensign's challenge and bring the measure to an actual up-or-down vote. Supporters said the opposition was engaged in a thinly veiled effort to kill the measure without drawing blame in a midterm election year.

They 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.

Opponents said the report left open the possibility of borrowing federal money if the trust fund runs dry.