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Democrats Warned On Asbestos Bill

Trial lawyers are advising Democratic Senators that the current proposal to compensate victims of asbestos exposure not only shortchanges their clients, but could curtail future campaign contributions made by asbestos lawyers to Democrats.

Linda Lipsen, a senior vice president for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, told a Democratic campaign official last week that asbestos lawyers are upset about the legislative fix being advanced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

“It may have an impact on fundraising from this particular bar,” Lipsen said she told a senior Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee official. “Not that it will, but it might.”

“We are extremely concerned and many in our organization are upset,” she said in a telephone interview Friday in which she recounted her earlier conversation with the DSCC.

Trial lawyers are furious over Congress’ latest effort to end asbestos-related lawsuits by creating a trust fund to pay victims’ claims.

“We strongly believe the current draft proposal should be thoroughly examined to ensure that asbestos victims being asked to give up their legal rights won’t be forced to bear the risk of an inadequately funded, unfairly structured and untested new compensation program,” ATLA stated in an April 15 release.

The bill, which could be introduced as early as today, would also cap lawyers’ fees at between 5 percent and 10 percent.

Already, some events sponsored by individual asbestos lawyers have been “postponed,” said Lipsen, but she noted ATLA is not encouraging its members to call off fundraisers for Democratic Members. Lipsen’s organization, which represents 60,000 lawyers worldwide, is planning a major Chicago fundraiser for Democrats in May.

Trial lawyers are one of the most reliable sources of campaign dollars for Democrats. In the 2004 election cycle, ATLA donated nearly $2.6 million with about $2.4 million of that total going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While it is not clear how much more individual trial lawyers contributed to Democratic candidates, campaign committees and affiliated organizations, the figure is believed to be impressive.

DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), refused to discuss the matter last week by uttering a terse “no comment” twice in a matter of seconds following a Democratic Policy Committee meeting.

But news of the possible drying up of funds from this wealthy subset of trial lawyers was met with both surprise and in some cases a chilling response last week by other Democrats on Capitol Hill.

“I have heard some chatter on the floor, but I don’t know anybody where that has happened,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), acknowledging Senators were aware of the rumors that some fundraisers might be postponed.

Another liberal Democratic Senator expressed outrage at the idea that some asbestos lawyers might link a Senators’ policy decision to a campaign donation.

“The trial lawyers have reached a point where they think they run the place,” said the Senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Lipsen stressed that ATLA is not urging its members to postpone fundraisers over the latest developments on asbestos legislation. But she noted many of her organization’s members are “concerned” given that this comes on the heels of the class action reform bill, which was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in February.

“There is unease, certainly, in our community with the direction Democrats are going in all sorts of areas, whether it be class action or the asbestos bill,” she said.

Democrats said they are particularly frustrated by the trial lawyers’ complaints about allowing the class action bill to be approved. Seventy-two Senators voted for the bill’s final passage, which transfers jurisdiction of many cases from state to federal courts. Lawyers view state courtrooms as a friendlier venue than the federal courts for these types of cases.

“Look at the votes that supported this,” said a Democratic Senator, who spoke about his dissatisfaction with the trial lawyers on the condition of anonymity. “For crying out loud, what they should do is just get in there and make sure this minority is the majority.”

Republicans picked up four seats in 2004 to widen their margin in the chamber to 55-45. These extra seats have helped Republicans push a more business-friendly agenda through Congress than had been allowed by Democrats in past years.

The numbers in the Senate have made it more difficult for trial lawyers to protect their own interests. Peter Kraus, a partner in the Dallas firm Waters and Kraus, is one of the lawyers ATLA identified as postponing a fundraiser as a result of the asbestos issue.

Kraus, in an interview Monday, would not disclose who the fundraiser was for, but emphasized the delay was not out of vengeance but rather necessity.

The Dallas lawyer said he needs to focus his time on raising money to help defeat the new proposal, which he said would hurt his business.

“I haven’t cancelled anything, but I have pushed stuff back,” Kraus said. “The people I need to go and raise money from for [Democrats] are the same people I go to raise money to help oppose this bill.”

Kraus is a prolific contributor, personally giving more than $150,000 to Democrats in the 2004 election cycle, according to PoliticalMoneyLine. He also helps raise money from other people for the party.

But Kraus said if the bill is approved, then some of these donors will be unable to make future contributions because their livelihood would be greatly affected.

“There are a lot of people I raise money from who will not be making money in this litigation and will not be able to contribute, I am sure, to political campaigns,” he said. “That is not anger or a vendetta kind of thing. That is just the reality.”

Even though Kraus said he is “upset that there appears to be Democrats that would support this legislation,” the Dallas lawyer said he expects to be back raising money for the party once this legislative battle is over.

Another trial lawyer specializing in asbestos cases, John Cooney of Chicago, said he, too, had cancelled an upcoming fundraiser. Cooney, a partner in Cooney and Conway, donated more than $70,000 to Democrats in 2004, according to PoliticalMoneyLine. Cooney said he had to cancel his fundraiser because he is spending all his time in Washington, D.C., trying to fight the bill.

A Democratic strategist, who spoke freely on the condition of anonymity, said it is surprising that party leaders are not working harder to protect their political base.

“There is an old adage in Washington that you dance with the one who brought you,” said the strategist, who asked not to be be named. “But it is awfully hard to dance with someone whose legs you just cut off. And it is impossible to waltz into the majority dancing alone.”

But a senior Democratic Senator predicted this will eventually all blow over because trial lawyers “don’t have any other place to go,” in the nation’s capital.

“We provide substantial support for citizens’ rights to get an attorney and seek regress through the courts and we will continue to do that,” said the Senator, who spoke only if he remained anonymous. “They are upset because they have been hit by a majority [party] that is really after them.”

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