WASHINGTON -- A painstaking effort to end years of litigation over cancer-causing asbestos survived a procedural hurdle in the Senate yesterday, paving the way for a floor debate over a $140 billion plan to compensate victims outside the courtroom.
Lawmakers agreed, 98-1, to move forward with the plan to create the compensation fund, designed to stem a tide of litigation that dates to the 1970s and continues to rise.
"It's not been easy to get to the point where we are," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. He urged colleagues to vote to keep the beleaguered plan alive. "It's taken years and years of work."
Throughout the day, the asbestos bill appeared in danger. But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid ultimately chose not to challenge the Republicans who wanted to bring it up.
Asbestos has been used in insulation, brake linings, cement pipes and a long list of other materials, leading to widespread exposure. Its negative health effects range from shortness of breath and coughing to a fatal cancer known as mesothelioma.
Advocates of the compensation plan say it is needed to defuse an increasingly costly wave of litigation and economic uncertainty faced by companies over lawsuits; at the same time, they say it would establish a new system to ensure that victims get compensated. The fund would be financed by asbestos manufacturers and their insurance companies.
"I think it is an unconscionable vote to vote no," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a leading architect of the plan. The Pennsylvania Republican described the current situation as "an anathema and travesty and unworthy of the American judicial system."
Opponents have argued that the fund could prove insufficient for the vast expenses expected in the coming years, while relieving companies of a financial burden that is theirs to shoulder.
By some estimates, future claims might exceed $140 billion, raising concerns about how that could affect victims and also about whether costs would be shifted to the taxpayers. In addition, lawmakers disagree on whether the plan would accomplish its aim of adding greater certainty to asbestos claims or if employers might be able to manipulate the new system at the expense of victims.
The debate is scheduled to continue this week. The bill has emphatic opponents, and yesterday's lopsided vote is not viewed as a reflection of the Senate's sentiment on the actual legislation.
"One would have to search long and hard to find a bill in my opinion as bad as this," said Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Reid's initial objection to bringing the matter to the floor triggered last evening's procedural vote, which required 60 votes for approval. Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, was the only no vote; Sen. Tom Coburn, also an Oklahoma Republican, did not vote.
Under the bill, asbestos victims would be compensated from the fund, with payments ranging from $25,000 to $1.1 million, depending on the gravity of the illness. A goal of the approach is to make asbestos claims more like a workers' compensation system rather than to be based on the varying outcomes of lawsuits. Workers would not have to prove that their symptoms were caused by a particular exposure to asbestos.
"We've been working on this for quite a few years, and I feel more strongly than ever it's time to fix this broken system," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican. "The asbestos litigation in America today is out of control."
A 2005 report by the Rand Corp. found that asbestos-related claims cost businesses and insurance companies more than $70 billion from the early 1970s through 2002.
Hundreds of thousands of asbestos injury claims have been filed, by various estimates, contributing to the bankruptcy of more than 70 companies. An additional 300,000 claims are pending.
The legislation, if it becomes law, would have a major impact in Maryland, where all asbestos cases have been consolidated in Baltimore Circuit Court for more than a decade. The state has a two-tiered system aimed at helping the sickest first, with an "inactive" docket for people who claim to have been exposed to asbestos but have not become sick.
About 90 percent of asbestos cases in the state are settled without a trial. But a federal law would wipe out Maryland's system and remove all cases nationwide from the courts.
Yesterday, proponents pointed to the cooperation between Specter, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Leahy, the panel's senior Democrat, as an increasingly rare example of bipartisan cooperation, particularly over a highly complex and controversial matter.
"I think it's fair and accurate to say it's the most complex piece of legislation ever considered by a legislative body," Specter said. "I know that's a grandiose statement, but I think it's accurate."
The role of trial lawyers has emerged as a major flash point in the debate.
The Rand study, for example, found that out of each dollar spent on asbestos litigation, claimants got 42 cents, with the remainder going to compensate attorneys and for other costs.
Advocates of the legislation have seized on such figures as proof that the current system does not work to the benefit of victims.
"The fact that only 42 cents of every dollar spent on the burgeoning dockets of litigation in this area goes to actual victims of asbestos exposure is a national disgrace," Leahy said this week. "We can and we must do better for all involved in this crisis. They need our help, and they need it now."
But Reid countered last night that the emphasis on trial lawyers was misplaced: "The crisis that confronts us is not an asbestos litigation crisis," he said. "It's an asbestos-induced disease crisis."
Jonathan Peterson writes for the Los Angeles Times. A Sun reporter contributed to this article.