February 13, 2006

Key Democrat willing to curb asbestos suits

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The leader of U.S. Senate Democrats
said on Monday he would consider backing curbs on some asbestos
lawsuits if the chamber would scuttle legislation removing all
claims from court and paying victims from a $140 billion trust

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid urged senators to "get
this bill off the floor" ahead of a major procedural vote, that
could come as early as Tuesday, over whether the
industry-funded trust could cost taxpayers in violation of
budget rules.

Reid, from Nevada, said an alternative to the national fund
would be to keep asbestos claims in court, but revise the
medical criteria so that only claims involving serious disease
go forward.

"What we want to try to avoid are the bad cases, the ones
that are taking too much of the courts' time and taking
valuable resources from those that are really sick," he said,

Most Senate Democrats, including Reid, voted against just
such a medical criteria proposal last week, but nearly half the
chamber's Republicans backed the idea.

Reid's offer to look again at tougher medical guidelines
seemed designed to try and tempt Republicans to join forces
with him and other Democrats in killing the trust fund bill.

Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, last week made a
parliamentary objection on the grounds that the bill would
violate budget rules. He expressed concern that taxpayers would
have to foot the bill if the fund runs out of money. Such a
parliamentary objection would require 60 votes to defeat.

Bill co-sponsor, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of
Pennsylvania, denies taxpayers are at risk. He says if the fund
goes broke it would close down and cases go back to court.

Also on Monday, the non-partisan Congressional Budget
Office issued a new analysis of the Senate bill. It concluded
that the legislation would have no major impact on the federal
deficit through 2015 and that the government's general funds
would not be used to pay claims.

Asbestos fibers were widely used for their insulating and
fire-retardant capabilities for years. However, some 70 U.S.
companies, including W.R. Grace and Co. and USG Corp, have been
pushed into bankruptcy proceedings by thousands of injury

The bill has sharply divided lawmakers, industry and unions
over how to resolve billions of dollars in asbestos suits.

A bill requiring asbestos injury lawsuits to meet certain
medical criteria already has been introduced in the House. But
such curbs on lawsuits have long been anathema to many
Democrats, who traditionally depend on trial lawyers as a major
source of campaign funding.

The United Auto Workers union on Monday wrote to all
senators urging them to reject the procedural attempt to stop
the asbestos fund bill.

The UAW supports the trust fund bill, and its letter said
the legislation represents "the best opportunity to establish a
program that will provide prompt, equitable compensation to the
victims of asbestos related diseases."

But the AFL-CIO labor federation has withheld its backing,
saying there are still significant problems with the trust