Sparks Fly At Senate Asbestos Debate

Arlen Specter, US Senator of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 2005/11/29
AP
The subject was a sober one, and new to the Senate floor: Should the Senate vote on a bill that would set up a $140 billion fund for people sickened by asbestos exposure?

Within minutes, the exchange spiraled into familiar election-year territory with Democrats calling the legislation Republican payback to corporate lobbyists and GOP senators accusing the Democrats of obstructionism.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., objected to allowing a vote on the bill. He spoke only a few moments before uttering the name of disgraced influence peddler Jack Abramoff.

"Washington has been run by the lobbyists. The Jack Abramoff scandal is no surprise," Reid said in his opening remarks.

Corporations that without the bill might be required to pay billions in legal awards to victims should be "jumping with joy," Reid added. "They were able to buy their way into the Senate paying for a bunch of lobbyists."

"Slander!" responded Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the bill's sponsor, whose stewardship of the bill for more than two years helped it survive the committee process to become the first new legislation considered by the Senate this year.

"To accuse us of being the pawns of the lobbyists is — is — is beyond slander, beyond insult," Specter stammered. "It's beyond outrage."

The fireworks picked up the election-year session where Congress left it in December: with a hangover of partisanship, unfinished legislative business and bitter accusations of undue influence.

Hurricane Katrina and two Supreme Court nominations left Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., little time last year for the technical asbestos matter, so he promised it would be the first new bill considered by the Senate in 2006.

But the bill is off to a troubled start, even with backing from President Bush, Republican leaders, and Specter's personal appeal to more than 60 senators.

Under the measure, defendant companies and their insurers would contribute $140 billion to a trust fund that would compensate victims of asbestos exposure. A high priority of Mr. Bush's business allies, the measure also would halt all asbestos-related court cases and spare defendants crippling jury awards.

On the other side, a coalition of companies and unions has launched a muscular campaign against the measure, saying among other things that the fund wouldn't support the number of claims made against it. Democrats and several Republican senators also worry that taxpayers might have to pay the bill if claims drain the trust fund.

Several procedural hurdles stand in the way. The toughest is a test vote on Tuesday on whether to bring the bill up for a vote, a procedure that requires the support of 60 senators.

Even Specter isn't predicting success here. He made the argument that in forcing a test vote — the way the Democrats did on the USA Patriot Act and judicial nominees — Reid is acting on politics rather than the substance of the bill.

"What he's seeking to do is obstruct, and he's had a lot of practice at that," Specter said.

Also, Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is considering objecting on the grounds that the bill would violate budget rules. Specter says the fund would be wholly supported by private contributions, and no federal dollars.

For his part, Reid offered a hat-in-hand apology for casting aspersions on the motives of "my friend from Pennsylvania." As evidence of his high esteem for Specter, Reid offered a distinctly senatorial — if backhanded — compliment.

"I'm one of the few people around who have read his book," Reid said. "I enjoyed reading his book."