"As John Paul Jones said, we have just begun to fight," declared Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
The 58-41 vote to send the bill back to the Judiciary Committee was a severe setback. Opponents said the fund would be drained by claims against it, leave taxpayers liable and violate federal budget rules.
The bill's supporters needed 60 votes to keep the measure alive on the Senate floor. They had 59 before Frist, R-Tenn., switched his vote at the last minute in a procedural move that allows him to bring it up again.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote. Specter said Inouye would have been the 60th vote that would have kept the vote alive.
"He went home because his wife was sick," Specter said. "We will have him on the motion to reconsider and we may change another vote or two so we may win this one yet."
The cliffhanger vote followed a furious lobbying effort on the Senate floor.
The bill, sought by many manufacturers and their insurers, 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 gone uncompensated.
Drawing on his seniority, Judiciary Committee Arlen Specter, R-Pa., issued a personal appeal on behalf of the bill.
"Give me the benefit of the doubt," he told the Senate 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 is so flawed that even two weeks of debate weren't enough to get it into acceptable shape.
"It is doomed to fail," Reid said.