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A Senate committee on Thursday approved long-stalled legislation that would shield manufacturers and insurers from asbestos lawsuits. The measure would create a $140 billion trust fund to compensate people sickened by exposure to asbestos, a fibrous mineral commonly used until the mid-1970s in insulation and fireproofing material. Asbestos has tiny fibers that can cause cancer and other ailments when inhaled. The diseases often take decades to develop. Several Republicans on the Judiciary Committee plan to oppose the legislation when it reaches the full Senate. Their support in committee allowed the chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to advance the bill by a 13-5 vote. “As currently written, I could not support the bill on the floor if it does not change,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Added Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.: “It does need substantial work.” Specter said, “We will do our best to make further accommodations and improve the bill.” Specter and top Judiciary Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont have been trying to get the legislation out of committee and to the full Senate, but have continually been sidetracked by the battles over President Bush’s judicial nominees. With Monday’s agreement on that subject in place, Specter and Leahy worked through the day to try and get the bill moving again. “We have always realized that passing a bill of this scope and complexity is the legislative equivalent of steering a ship through a minefield during a hurricane,” Leahy said. “This solid and bipartisan committee endorsement will help generate the momentum that will be needed to navigate through the difficult steps that still lie ahead.” Several Democrats, including Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Joseph Biden of Delaware, also plan to fight the bill. They voted against the legislation along with Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois. “I say to the ranking member, you didn’t get it right on this one,” Feingold said. “The mere fact that you spent a large amount of time on it doesn’t justify pre-empting people’s rights in court.” Business, labor and insurance groups are split on the legislation. It would require insurers and business groups to put $140 billion into a trust fund. As part of the deal, victims of asbestos-related illnesses would surrender their right to sue. Supporters of the bill say asbestos liability is driving companies out of business and leaving victims with little or no money for medical bills. A trust fund would speed money to those people and assure companies that they would not be sued out of existence, the supporters say. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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