Senate leaders continued efforts last month to find a workable compromise that would allow passage of an asbestos compensation bill this fall, but the final outcome remains uncertain.

A number of issues are in contention. On the most basic issue, the total amount of money to be allocated to the proposed fund, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle inched closer to the $140 billion figure proposed by Majority Leader Bill Frist in August. Frist insists that it will not be possible to achieve passage of a higher allocation.

While indicating a willingness to accept less than the $149 billion that asbestos victims groups have demanded – and $5 billion less than he proposed in June – Daschle also indicated that his plan would allow pending and other soon-to-be-filed cases to proceed in the court system. That stance runs counter to the Frist position.

Differences continue to exist on other issues as well. Three asbestos victims groups – the Committee to Protect Mesothelioma Victims (CPMV), the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization and the Asbestos Victims Organization – announced opposition to the lowered allocation proposal. In a sharp critique of present political negotiations, CPMV Chair Sue Vento said, “I think right now there is more interest in getting something done than doing something right.” Her late husband, Congressman Bruce Vento, died four years ago from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos.

The AFL-CIO and the trial lawyers expressed continuing opposition to any reduction in the fund’s proposed allocation.

Also, the insurance industry indicated opposition to Daschle’s proposal, probably due to his intention to allow pending cases to proceed in the courts.

Given these ongoing differences, the generally heightened political climate heading into the November elections and the fact that Congress has yet to enact most of the spending bills it must pass to avoid shut-downs in the federal government, it remains doubtful that asbestos compensation legislation will pass this fall. However, the positions taken in this year’s debates will likely be the starting positions for new efforts in the next Congress.

[Steve Clark]