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Draft Asbestos Bill Sends Lobbyists Into Frenzy

As Senate Judiciary Committee members neared an agreement over asbestos litigation Tuesday afternoon, scores of stakeholders who have spent years lobbying Congress pored over a draft bill, trying to gauge how much it helped, or hurt, their cause.

Senators were careful to note they have not yet reached a final agreement. But several voiced optimism that after ironing out some kinks, they would be able to move forward with bipartisan support.

Senators behind the draft bill, which checked in at about 400 pages, were still shopping Tuesday for both Republican and Democratic supporters.

“We still have to get Democrats to go with us, and some Republicans still need to be convinced,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), whose attempts to reach an agreement as Judiciary chairman last year fell short.

Current Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he could not yet declare unanimous GOP support.

“My goal is to get all 10 of the Republican Senators” on the committee, he said. “It would be presumptuous of me to make a prediction” that he already had that support, Specter added.

The draft bill calls for the establishment of a trust fund to pay victims of asbestos-related illnesses — a provision that’s been at the center of negotiations for two years but has recently caused some insurers and manufacturers to balk, as its projected total climbed to $140 billion.

Some of those companies have also objected to plans to allow plaintiffs to take their cases back to the courts if the trust fund runs dry.

The draft bill circulated Tuesday sought to strike a compromise on the issue by allowing cases to return to the courts, but only after satisfying a set of requirements, said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

Nelson said the bill “made some major improvements, but some of the previous stakeholders have taken leave of the project and are not sure they want to support it,” pointing to insurers. “I’d like to make them happy if possible,” he said, adding he planned to convene meetings with those who have pulled their support from the process.

Among them is the Coalition for Asbestos Reform, a group formed in December to represent about 35 companies dissatisfied with Specter’s approach. It was considering Tuesday whether to mobilize against the draft bill.

Tom O’Brien, a leader in the coalition, said in a phone interview from New Jersey that he was planning a last-minute trip to Washington this morning.

“It upsets me that it’s moving through Judiciary very quickly,” he said. “I don’t have a feel as to whether or not members are considering key issues.”

Members of his group include such corporate powerhouses as Exxon Mobil, DuPont and Foster Wheeler as well as insurance giants AIG, Chubb and Liberty Mutual.

Specter allowed that because of Republican concerns, some “refinements” to the bill were likely. But he declined to say whether those tweaks would address reverting cases to the courts.

If the bill is approved by the committee, it could find its way to the floor soon: Specter said the issue is high on President Bush’s agenda. He added, “My sense is that [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist [R-Tenn.] will find time” on the floor for the measure.

Meanwhile, trial lawyers, who have lobbied to protect their interests in asbestos settlements, would see their fees capped at between 5 percent and 10 percent under the draft bill, Hatch said. A spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the trial lawyers’ lobby, said on Tuesday afternoon that the group was still studying the draft language.

Spokesmen for the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform — both major business trade associations representing companies on different sides of the issue — were circumspect.

“We’re impressed and grateful for Sen. Specter’s leadership, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” NAM spokesman Darren McKinney said. Matt Webb, the chamber’s vice president for legal reform policy, added only that “we are hopeful outstanding issues will be addressed and there will be a workable bill.”

However, a lobbyist for a prominent member of the Asbestos Study Group, which is backing Specter’s approach, said his company’s initial reaction was that the Senator had accomplished a significant feat by crafting the compromise.

“We thought it couldn’t be done, but he has produced a bill with broad appeal to insurers, business and labor,” the lobbyist said. “We’re very optimistic about it.”

The AFL-CIO, which at various times has worked with both sides, did not return a call for comment.

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