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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.

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