WASHINGTON - In a bipartisan 13-5 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a $140 billion legislative settlement that would end asbestos injury suits stemming from the nation's worst workplace disaster.
But the decisive vote came only after a late uproar over how to treat disease victims in dozens of cities where factories processed asbestos-tainted Montana vermiculite.
The vote, culminating months of hearings and closed-door negotiations among businesses, insurers, labor unions and trial lawyers, could clear the way for Senate passage of a bill high on President Bush's priority list.
Under the measure, up to 2 million asbestos victims would seek compensation over the next 30 years from an industry-bankrolled trust fund.
The Rand Institute for Civil Justice said in a 2003 study that more than 60 companies have sought bankruptcy protection because of more than 600,000 asbestos claims now in courts. That number is expected to grow.
A legislative compromise has proved elusive. Pulling the bill in different directions are manufacturers, insurers, labor groups, trial lawyers and groups representing people with asbestos-related illnesses.
Backers of the massive bill believe they will draw support from more Democrats when it reaches the floor. But three conservative Republican committee members added a bit of uncertainty by threatening to vote no on the floor unless revisions are made.
The vote was nearly delayed by controversy over a special provision ensuring $400,000 in compensation to anyone with an asbestos-related lung impairment within 20 miles of Libby, Mont.
The northwest Montana town has been ravaged by dust from contaminated vermiculite mined nearby, with an asbestos-related fatality toll in the hundreds. The compensation provision is one reason that Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is expected to help the bill's backers form a filibuster-proof majority on the Senate floor.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called for equal treatment for people who lived near 28 or more former plants that processed Libby vermiculite.
Graham's amendment was defeated 11-6 after Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, warned that it would cover 50 million people and "absolutely kills this bill."
Instead, the panel adopted a provision offered by its Republican chairman, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, and the ranking Democrat, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, that leaves the issue up to federal health officials. It calls on the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry to identify any sites that are "substantially equivalent" to Libby. If similar contamination is found, people with asbestos disease who live near those sites would get the same treatment.
Graham strongly objected to that language, noting that the plants closed long ago. He argued there is no way to measure their asbestos emissions.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was "just handed a map" showing several vermiculite processing plants in California.
"I think this is a potentially explosive issue," she said.
Feinstein noted that the W.R. Grace & Co., which bought the Libby mine in 1963, was indicted on fraud and conspiracy charges this winter for allegedly concealing knowledge about the dangers of tremolite asbestos in the ore.
"W.R. Grace knew, and it was different, and so there is reason for an exception here," she said.
Specter pledged to take the issue up again on the Senate floor.
Another provision of the bill does allow people exposed in "exceptional circumstances" to apply for compensation. The bill's sponsors say that should cover the vermiculite victims.
Grace shipped about 10 billion pounds of ore to about 200 sites throughout the country.
Debate over the core bill was acerbic at times. Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Kennedy charged it is tilted toward industry interests and leaves victims vulnerable even as they surrender their rights to sue.
Biden argued that, in the event of a cash shortfall, the trust fund administrator would have authority to recommend tighter medical criteria and cutbacks in compensation, scheduled to range from $25,000 for modest lung impairments to $1.1 million for people with deadly mesothelioma.
Kennedy said the bill would freeze out thousands of sick people. But Leahy and Feinstein stuck with the committee's 10 Republicans in turning back a series of amendments and approving a measure aimed at addressing inequities in the current court system.
Critics complain that the courts have been clogged with suits on behalf of workers who have no disease symptoms and that some victims are left with pennies on the dollar because of the bankruptcies of 74 defendant companies.
Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, hailed the committee vote and urged the Senate to "yield to our shared national interest" and pass it.
"The investor uncertainty that stems in no small part from ongoing asbestos lawsuit abuse has slowed the pace of our economic recovery," he said.
But the American Insurance Association called it "wholly unacceptable" that the bill "still leaves insurers substantially exposed" to the court system.
Margaret Seminario, health and safety director for the AFL-CIO, said the labor umbrella group will oppose the measure because "it's not fair" to victims.
Linda Reinstein, co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, whose husband is fighting mesothelioma, called the bill "a travesty of justice."
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- The Bee's Greg Gordon can be reached at (202) 383-0005 or email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.