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Several major corporations, including one forced into bankruptcy because of asbestos litigation, are opposing a plan by congressional Republicans that would ban asbestos liability lawsuits in exchange for a multibillion-dollar compensation fund. Disharmony between business and Congress would provide a rocky start for legislation to be pushed today in a committee hearing by Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter. The Pennsylvania Republican says asbestos liability is driving companies out of business and leaving victims with little or no money for medical bills. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was commonly used until the mid-1970s in insulation and fireproofing material. Its tiny fibers can cause cancer and other ailments when inhaled, but the diseases often take decades to develop. Specter has said he favors ending asbestos liability and paying victims through a trust fund instead of having thousands of lawsuits with no end in sight. “This trust-fund approach aims to replace an unpredictable system with one that has certainty for companies and victims,” Specter said in a Jan. 4 Senate speech. But several corporations oppose the idea, including Federal-Mogul Corp. The Southfield, Mich.-based auto supplier filed for bankruptcy in 2001 because it was facing more than 365,000 lawsuits claiming hundreds of millions in damages because of asbestos. The company was drawn into the issue in 1998 when it bought several companies facing asbestos claims. The company said in a Jan. 3 statement that the legislation won’t help the economy, sick people or the companies that are being sued into bankruptcy. “Not only will the proposed trust result in devastating economic harm to U.S. business, leaving most companies far worse off than under the existing tort system, but it will almost certainly fail to compensate most claimants before becoming insolvent,” the company said in a fact sheet it sent to Congress. Federal-Mogul said it would be forced to pay more money into the trust fund than any other — $82 million a year under a previously introduced version of the legislation. But it isn’t the only business concerned about Specter’s bill. In a separate Jan. 3 letter, Exxon Mobil Corp., E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., and other corporations joined Federal-Mogul in opposing Specter’s proposed legislation. “We remain concerned that the current discussion would result in a program that would set up back rather than move us forward,” the companies said. “We encourage you to consider alternate approaches.” Other business groups have supported the trust fund, including the National Association of Manufacturers. “The best solution to the asbestos problem lies in establishment of a national, no-fault trust fund, privately financed by asbestos defendant companies and insurers,” said Mike Baroody, the group’s executive vice president and chair of the Asbestos Alliance steering committee. President Bush called for Congress to find a solution last week but has not offered a specific proposal. The Senate has been trying to figure out a solution to the litigation problem for years. 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. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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