February 7, 2006

Vets, victims swarm Capitol before asbestos vote

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Military veterans and victims of
asbestos-related diseases fanned out in the U.S. Capitol on
Tuesday to plead for and against an asbestos compensation bill
ahead of a Senate vote that aides said was too close to call.

For years, asbestos fibers were widely used for their
insulating and fire-retardant capabilities, but they are linked
to lung-scarring diseases, including cancer.

Hundreds of thousands of asbestos injury claims have been
filed, helping push into bankruptcy more than 70 U.S.
companies, including W.R. Grace & Co. and USG Corp..

A sponsor of the controversial Senate measure, Arlen
Specter, appealed to colleagues not to kill the bill to halt
asbestos lawsuits and create a $140 billion fund for
compensating asbestos victims. A key procedural vote in the
Senate was set for 6 p.m ET (2300 GMT).

"I think it is an unconscionable vote to vote no," Specter,
a Pennsylvania Republican, declared on the Senate floor.

Aides to senators on both sides of the issue declined to
predict the outcome of the vote, saying it was too close to

Representatives of veterans' groups told reporters that
they cannot sue their former employer -- the federal government
-- over asbestos exposure that happened in military facilities.
This, they said, was why they in particular needed a
compensation fund.

"Veterans account for 25 percent of all current
asbestos-related claims and have been waiting years in the
court system for some sort of settlement," said Tom Zampieri, a
member of the Blinded Veterans Association.

Elsewhere in the Capitol, victims of asbestos-related
diseases said they had collected 150,000 signatures, including
those of many veterans, against the bill. At a news conference
organized by plaintiffs' lawyers, these victims said the fund
was designed to write down the liabilities of big companies
while discouraging victims from filing claims with complicated
exposure requirements.

"This bill is a bail-out for greedy, irresponsible
corporations, and it's the ultimate insult to their victims,
who will lose their right to sue for damages," said Paul
Zygielbaum, who has mesothelioma, a lethal form of cancer.

Under the bill, sponsored by Specter and Vermont Democrat
Sen. Patrick Leahy, asbestos victims would be paid from a fund
financed by asbestos defendant companies and their insurers. In
exchange, the companies would no longer have to face asbestos
lawsuits in court.

The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in May,
but it has divided lawmakers from both parties, split industry
groups and struggled to gain momentum.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican,
wanted the Senate to consider the asbestos bill this week, but
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, objected,
forcing a procedural vote on Tuesday evening.

At least 60 votes are needed to go ahead with the debate,
or the bill will be withdrawn. If Specter and Leahy muster the
necessary support, however, the bill could still face other
procedural hurdles.

In the House of Representatives, a different approach to
asbestos claims is under consideration. The House bill would
allow asbestos lawsuits to go forward, but only if claimants
meet certain medical criteria.

Joan Claybrook, director of consumer advocacy group Public
Citizen, expected the Senate bill to survive the Tuesday
evening vote.

"But whether the bill will pass is highly questionable,"
she said. "There are both Republicans and Democrats in favor
and opposed."