FAIR hits vote snag in Senate
By ROGER MORRIS Western News Publisher
The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2005 hit a procedural snag Tuesday night and won't be debated by the Senate until after the February recess — nearly two weeks from now.
On Tuesday night, the Senate voted 58-41 on a procedural motion, called a budget point of order, by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who said the $140 billion trust fund included in FAIR should be a federal budget item. Ensign and a group of conservative senators are concerned that the fund is not big enough and that the government will be forced to bail out a depleted fund sometime in the future.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., switched his vote to no at the last minute that will allow him to bring up the bill again later.
"While this vote is a temporary setback, the fight for Libby is far from over," said Montana Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat. "We are going to ask for another vote and I think we can win. Senator Burns and I are pushing as hard as we possibly can. The margin is razor thin, but it's still a live ball."
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said the bill was not dead but more like "in limbo" until a second vote could be called by the majority leader.
"I don't think we're dead but we are wounded," Burns said. "It was a terrible surprise. I thought we were going to make it last night."
Burns said Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii had to leave because of a family emergency and he had been courted to vote with the majority.
"We met with the leader this morning and he was kind of disappointed," Burns said. "I met with Sen. Specter this morning and they're going to set this aside for a couple of days. They think we have the votes."
It was a close vote and there are four or five senators who could go either way, Burns said.
"Leadership will make a decision when it comes up again," he continued. "We're just in limbo right now but we're not dead and we will keep working together."
Burns warned that there are some of the amendments that haven't been seen and some that have. Some of the amendments would return the bill to its original form with basic medical criteria for abestosis, which would eliminate most if not all of Libby asbestos vicitms from W.R. Grace's.
"We have enough support to defeat those amendements," Burns said. "If it would come to a vote today on final passage we would pass the bill."
Baucus said that in addition to trying to keep the Libby Fix alive he is going to propose a package of provisions that will help Libby, including requiring W.R. Grace to set up a health care trust fund before it can emerge from bankruptcy.
"We have come a long way in our fight to get people in Libby the compensation they need and deserve after they were poisoned by W.R Grace," Baucus said. "I'm hell-bent on finishing the job."
Burns said the two senators will do battle with anyone who puts up a barracade to the legislation.
"This fight has just begun," he said. "This is the tip of the iceberg."
The Senate won't see any more action on the legislation until after it comes back from break during the last week in February-first week in March, he said.