A plan to create a $140-billion trust fund to pay victims of asbestos exposure has suffered a major setback in the Senate. In a Feb. 14 procedural vote, supporters of a bill to set up the fund fell one vote short of the 60 needed to prevent the measure from being sent back to committee.
After the initial tally, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who supported the trust fund bill, switched his vote from "yes" to "no," making the final total 58-41. That move allows him to call up the bill in the future, letting the legislation maintain what Frist termed a �heartbeat.�
The vote was on a motion from Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who contended that the asbestos measure violated federal spending rules.
The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act (S.852), introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and the panel's top Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, would establish a trust fund�paid for by insurers and corporations that have been sued for asbestos liability�to compensate victims of asbestos exposure and limit lawsuits, although existing settlements would not be affected.
The bill�s supporters said the legislation is a common-sense measure that would help victims and limit the number of lawsuits that have clogged the court system. "Senators for and against this bill agree there is an asbestos crisis, and we must address the problem now," Leahy said.
Leading the charge against the bill were Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the American Trial Lawyers Association. They claimed that the trust fund essentially provides a �bailout� for large corporations that have exposed workers to asbestos and that the fund would eventually go bankrupt, leaving victims with no way to obtain compensation. In addition, some small businesses complain that the legislation as written would force them into bankruptcy.
The White House supported the bill, although it said it has "serious concerns" about certain provisions.