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Opponents force asbestos fund bill off Senate floor

Opponents of a $140-billion trust fund for asbestos victims forced Senate leaders to withdraw it Tuesday, but its sponsors said they would bring it back up.

Next time, they predicted, the bill would pass.

"As John Paul Jones said, we have just begun to fight," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

The 58-41 vote to send the bill back to the Judiciary Committee was a severe setback. Opponents say the fund would be drained by claims, leave taxpayers liable and violate federal budget rules.

The bill's supporters needed 60 votes to keep the measure alive on the Senate floor. They had 59 before Frist, R-Tenn., switched his vote in a procedural move that allows him to bring it up again.

The cliffhanger vote followed a furious lobbying effort on the Senate floor.

The bill, sought by many manufacturers and their insurers, would end decades of lawsuits. According to supporters, tens of thousands of people sickened by asbestos and related diseases have gone uncompensated.

Opponents and supporters crossed party lines. Florida's Senate delegation was split, with Republican Mel Martinez voting in favor of the measure and Democrat Bill Nelson opposing it.

The measure would have forced defendant companies that dealt with asbestos-containing products to contribute to a $140-billion trust fund from which claims would be paid to those sickened by asbestos.

In exchange for payouts of up to $1.1-million, based on age and exposure level, victims would drop all asbestos-related claims.

Such legislation would spare companies that would be driven out of business by legal fees and lawsuits, supporters say. More than 70 companies have been forced into bankruptcy over asbestos litigation.