Reuters, June 15, 2004, Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There is still time for Congress to pass legislation on asbestos reform this year, the Senate Democratic leader said on Tuesday, striking an upbeat note on an effort that appeared to have stalled last month.
Sen. Tom Daschle acknowledged that progress might be taking place "at a snail's pace," but said he and Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist were still seeking a bipartisan consensus on setting up a national fund to pay asbestos victims' claims.
"We aren't going to give up until its absolutely clear that there is no possibility of achieving agreement," Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, told reporters outside the Senate.
"We still have time, and if it's a bipartisan agreement that Senator Frist and I feel comfortable proposing to our caucus, I think we can pass it in a reasonable period of time and get it over to the House (of Representatives)." Daschle said.
"And if they could see fit to do the same we could still get it on the president's desk this year, and that's my hope," Daschle added. He was responding to a question about prospects for a Senate deal on asbestos.
Several senators have been working for more than a year on legislation setting up an asbestos compensation fund, which would be financed by asbestos litigation defendants and insurers.
But organized labor representatives have said business offers have fallen short of the money needed to pay thousands of asbestos claims stretching into the future.
Daschle and Frist said last month they would keep open the possibility of an agreement on an asbestos fund after an effort by a senior appeals court judge to mediate among asbestos companies, insurers and labor representatives failed.
But the effort is competing with numerous other issues for ever-scarcer Senate time in an election year.
A spokeswoman for Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said staff-level discussions on asbestos were continuing.
"Senator Frist also feels strongly that we should continue working on a deal, and hopefully, for the good of the American people, and for the good of those suffering with asbestos, we can come to an agreement so they can compensated," spokeswoman Amy Call said.
Asbestos was widely used for fireproofing and insulation until the 1970s. Scientists say inhaled fibers are linked to cancer and other diseases.
Companies have paid an estimated $70 billion on some 730,000 asbestos personal injury claims, making it the most expensive type of litigation in U.S. history, according to the RAND Institute for Civil Justice.
Many companies facing asbestos claims have filed for bankruptcy; among those that have done so in recent years are building materials company Owens Corning and auto parts