Bring It On

Posted April 19, 2004 at 6:36pm

Let the finger pointing on Capitol Hill begin. Again.

In roles they never seem to get tired of playing, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate returned to resume their weekly legislative blame game after just a week’s hiatus.

This week’s topic: the asbestos victims relief bill.

(Behind the scenes, however, those tired of the Senate’s partisan warfare will also have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the budget sideshow, in which Senate Republicans will take on House Republicans over the blueprint for spending more than $800 billion in 2005.)

First, let’s take a moment to get to know this week’s players on the asbestos bill — which both sides acknowledge will be an exercise in futility given that Republicans do not appear to have the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Democratic-led filibuster.

On the left, Democrats are becoming increasingly sensitive to Republican allegations that they would rather allow victims of asbestos exposure to take their chances in the courts, given what both sides agree is the strong likelihood that asbestos manufacturers and user companies will run out of money before all current and future victims have been compensated.

“Democrats are still trying to get this bill done,” insisted Todd Webster, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. “When [Republicans] don’t want to actually pass a bill, they rush it to the floor without Democratic involvement.”

Still, Republicans have gained some traction by milking the Democrats’ traditional alliance with the trial lawyer lobby. GOPers insist that their plan to eliminate asbestos lawsuits and set up a victims fund would enrich only those who deserve it — people sickened or likely to get sick from asbestos exposure — rather than lawyers engaged in years of appeals.

The Democrats’ counter-argument is based primarily on the premise that they are the ones who are serious about creating an asbestos fund and that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) office has been less than genuine in the negotiations over the bill.

According to a senior Senate Democratic aide, the bipartisan Senate leadership discussions that began last September went nowhere fast. Frist had devised a plan in which his office and Daschle staffers would discuss how to fund the bill, which requires companies with asbestos liabilities as well as insurance companies to pick up the tab.

On separate tracks, Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would try to figure out how to start and sunset the fund, as well as come up with a means for dealing with pending court cases. And finally, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and retired Judge Edward Becker were tasked with devising a way to administer the fund.

“Negotiations pretty much ground to a halt at the end of the year,” groused the Democratic aide. “And now, Hatch has introduced a bill that even he admits will fail.”

Indeed, Republicans say they were a little miffed to read last week that Hatch was discounting his bill’s chances before the measure even came to the floor.

Webster said this week’s asbestos debate would fit the same old pattern of behavior from Republicans, where they refuse to consider Democratic proposals and “pull bills from the floor after a single Democratic amendment has been offered.”

Don’t be confused if you look to your right and see Republicans making eerily similar arguments about Democrats.

“It’s disingenuous to say that somehow talks broke down on our end,” said a senior Senate Republican aide. “They were just sitting there like logs during the meetings.”

Republicans have complained for months that Democrats appeared unwilling to compromise on the asbestos bill and wouldn’t budge from their insistence on a $150 billion fund — which many insurance companies and Republicans rejected as too expensive.

The current bill would set up a fund of roughly $124 billion.

When pressed, both sides also acknowledge their more substantive disagreements.

Democrats are none too happy that the GOP nixed their amendments (adopted in last year’s Judiciary Committee markup) to return asbestos cases to the current system if the fund runs out of money and to allow current court cases to continue until the fund is set up.

But the senior Senate Republican aide said both those amendments would have killed the bill’s chances on the floor.

“We can’t build it so that it blows up,” said the aide, noting that the measure would allow asbestos victims to return to the courts if the fund ran out. They just wouldn’t be able to “forum shop” for large settlements in state courts. They’d have to argue the merits in federal court only.

Democrats also complain that the bill discriminates against cigarette smokers.

The bill would allow current smokers who have no signs of asbestos-related illness to apply to the fund for $50,000, according to a GOP aide. Former smokers could get $150,000, and people who’ve never smoked would be eligible for as much as $412,500 if they prove they were exposed to asbestos.

Smokers and non-smokers diagnosed with mesothelioma, a lung cancer primarily caused by asbestos exposure, could get up to $1 million through the fund.

But Democrats say smokers who are not currently sick are getting the short end of the stick, especially given the fact that many people who fall ill from asbestos exposure do not show medical symptoms for decades after they were exposed.

“It’s insufficient,” said Webster. “It could strike years from now. We just don’t know and we won’t know for years how many victims there are.”

But Republicans dismissed Democratic outrage at the medical criteria and awards.

“It’s a scam to pay a bunch of union members who happen to smoke,” said the senior Senate Republican aide. “If we didn’t have the criteria, we’d have every lung cancer victim in America apply.”

Meanwhile, House and Senate budget writers will meet again for the first time in two weeks to decide whether to make it harder for themselves to pass more tax cuts this year.

A handful of Senate GOP moderates — namely, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — have the power to force the Senate, and they hope their fellow Republicans in the House, to accept strict “pay-as-you-go” spending rules that would effectively nix passage of new tax cuts this year.

While Chafee and McCain have unequivocally said they won’t vote for anything but the most strict spending restraints, Snowe has been cagey about her intentions, alternately noting that she doesn’t want to “issue ultimatums” and expressing deep concern about how she could possibly vote for anything she considers fiscally irresponsible.