WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said Tuesday Congress must come to grips with the issue of banning asbestos lawsuits (search), a fight over legal-accountability that has divided lawmakers and pitted labor against management.
Gaveling to order a hearing on a plan that would put these suits off limits in exchange for a multibillion-dollar compensation fund, Specter said, "This may well be the last best chance to deal with this issue in the foreseeable future."
Specter, who hopes to have something ready to send to the Senate floor in February, admitted that people say his timetable is unrealistic.
"Well, I believe in unrealistic timetables," Specter said. "You have an unrealistic timetable, you're likely to get it done sooner. But there has been a full court press on this issue because of the importance of it."
The Pennsylvania Republican says asbestos liability is driving companies out of business and leaving victims with little or no money for medical bills. Specter has said he favors ending asbestos liability and paying victims through a trust fund instead of having thousands of lawsuits with no end in sight.
With labor and businesses fighting on different sides of the bill, there would need to be an agreement between Democrats and Republicans for the bill to move forward, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
"Without consensus on both sides of the aisle, there's no way on God's green earth it's going to make it," Leahy said.
Mike Baroody, executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers (search), said he believes that "the best solution to the asbestos problem lies in establishment of a national, no-fault trust fund, privately financed by asbestos defendant companies and insurers."
Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's (search) director of occupational safety and health department: "We have supported the establishment of a federal trust fund in principle, provided that it provides victims fair compensation and is adequately funded."
But disagreements between labor and businesses over how much money should be put in a trust fund for asbestos victims helped kill legislation ending asbestos liability lawsuits last year.
Several corporations already oppose the idea, including Federal-Mogul Corp (search). The Southfield, Mich.-based auto supplier filed for bankruptcy in 2001 because it was facing more than 365,000 lawsuits claiming hundreds of millions in damages because of asbestos. The company was drawn into the issue in 1998 when it bought several companies facing asbestos claims.
The company said in a Jan. 3 statement that the legislation won't help the economy, sick people or the companies that are being sued into bankruptcy.
"Not only will the proposed trust result in devastating economic harm to U.S. business, leaving most companies far worse off than under the existing tort system, but it will almost certainly fail to compensate most claimants before becoming insolvent," the company said in a fact sheet it sent to Congress.
Federal-Mogul said it would be forced to pay more money into the trust fund than any other -- $82 million a year under a previously introduced version of the legislation. But it isn't the only business concerned about Specter's bill.
In a separate Jan. 3 letter, Exxon Mobil Corp., E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. (search), and other corporations joined Federal-Mogul in opposing Specter's proposed legislation.
"We remain concerned that the current discussion would result in a program that would set up back rather than move us forward," the companies said.