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Republicans will try for quick action on a measure that would end asbestos lawsuits in exchange for a trust fund to compensate victims, the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Tuesday, despite a two-year deadlock. “It is my hope to be able to present a bill through markup at a very, very early date,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who will become Judiciary chairman later this week. “Whether that can be done in late January or early February remains to be seen.” Republicans say Democrats wouldn’t let previous bills pass because trial lawyers don’t want to lose the money they make from asbestos lawsuits. Democrats argue that the GOP bills didn’t have enough money for victims and that Republicans are only trying to help their friends in the business and insurance communities by immunizing them from lawsuits. Specter said negotiations are still going on. “We’re very close on many, many issues,” he said. “There are some issues where there is some difference of opinion, but the differences have been narrowed.” Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle last year offered Republicans a compromise $141 billion trust fund for people suffering from asbestos-related diseases, but no action was taken. Republicans also were not able to get enough support for a $124 billion trust fund financed by businesses and insurance companies to ensure Senate passage. Specter would not say what numbers he would start from with his legislation, but he hoped to circulate a draft later this week and perhaps meet with interested parties next week. Specter also said he hoped to hold his first hearing on the subject Jan. 11, after the committee finishes with its confirmation hearings for Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales. “I think it is important to move ahead,” Specter said. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was commonly used until the mid-1970s in insulation and fireproofing material. It has tiny fibers that can cause cancer and other ailments when inhaled, but the diseases often take decades to develop. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., also said he plans to push legislation to curb class action lawsuits. “I’m confident we’ll pass this bill and take a big first step to restoring sanity and fairness to our legal system,” Frist said. The legislation would move more class action lawsuits out of state courts and into federal courts. Opponents of the legislation say federal judges will either throw out many of the cases or be less likely to issue multimillion-dollar judgments against corporations. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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