Wash. Post article falsely described asbestos bill opponents as "Democratic foes"

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

A Washington Post article about the debate over asbestos legislation described support for the bill as bipartisan, but referred only to "Democratic" foes. In fact, the bill has bipartisan opposition and bipartisan support.

A February 8 Washington Post article characterized a February 7 Senate vote to consider proposed asbestos legislation as "a setback for Democratic foes" of the bill. In fact, as the Post's coverage has previously noted, there is bipartisan opposition to the asbestos bill, as well as bipartisan support. The article, by staff writer Shailagh Murray, characterized the opposition as "Democratic foes" even though it noted in the next paragraph that the sole senator to vote against considering the asbestos bill was a Republican, James M. Inhofe (OK).

Asbestos, a material once commonly used in construction because of its strength and heat resistance, has been linked to serious types of cancer and lung diseases, prompting large lawsuits by workers exposed to asbestos who later got sick. One company, W.R. Grace & Co., was indicted a year ago for allegedly exposing the town of Libby, Montana, to asbestos through a mining operation there, then allegedly covering up the exposure. The current version of the asbestos bill would, according to a February 3 Post article, "remove damage claims of workers and others injured by exposure to asbestos from the courts, sending them instead to a privately financed $140 billion trust fund for adjudication and payment."

In contrast with Murray's description, previous coverage in the Post of the asbestos bill debate has reported the bipartisan character of opposition to the current asbestos legislation. A February 7 Associated Press article that the Post published on page A4 noted that "A coalition of companies and unions has begun a campaign against the measure, saying, among other things, that the fund would not support the number of claims made against it. Democrats and several Republican senators also worry that taxpayers might have to pay if claims drained the trust fund." A February 3 Post article reported that "some Republicans who voted for it [the bill] in committee said they would not support it on the floor without substantial changes," although their objections center on claims that those who do not deserve compensation will still receive it because the eligibility criteria to receive compensation are too broad and, also, that the bill will not stop all asbestos litigation.

In addition, a February 8 New York Times article noted that many Republicans oppose the bill as well, based on concerns about the bill's cost:

While the bill has gained the support of major business interests, it has come under attack from Democrats and Republicans.

Liberal Democrats and consumer groups, as well as trial lawyers, say the legislation would unfairly bail out corporations and restrict compensation to victims. Conservative Republicans say the trust would take too much money from industry and could require a federal bailout. As a result, lawmakers such as Senator Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who heads the Budget Committee, are threatening to raise points of order against the bill on the ground that it violates the Senate budget rules. The budget committee's ranking Democrat, Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, has said that asbestos claims could exceed contributions to the fund by $150 billion over 50 years.

From the February 8 Washington Post article, headlined "Asbestos Settlement Advances":

Legislation to settle tens of thousands of asbestos lawsuits cleared a major Senate hurdle yesterday, in a setback for Democratic foes and their trial lawyer allies, who are waging a feisty opposition.

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday that he would take steps to prevent the Senate from debating the bill and predicted that some Republicans would join him in the effort. But Reid reversed his position when it became clear he had little backing, and last night the Senate voted 98 to 1 to move forward, with Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) casting the lone negative vote.

[...]

Even with Reid strongly opposed to it, the bill has bipartisan support. It was co-authored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and that panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.).

[...]

Opponents, including the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the AFL-CIO, numerous insurers and some companies, maintain that the fund is poorly constructed. They say it would provide unfair levels of compensation and is based on shaky cost analysis. "More needs to be done before the bill can fulfill its promise to provide fair and timely compensation," AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney wrote in a Feb. 2 letter to senators.

But supporters, including asbestos companies and some unions and trial lawyers, contend the status quo is unsustainable. "I'm worried that men and women who have legitimate claims are running out of options," said Richard Scruggs, a Mississippi trial lawyer who has represented thousands of asbestos victims and supports the Specter-Leahy bill. "Many of my close friends are mad at me right now." But Scruggs added: "It's time to get this one over with."

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