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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 3:58 p.m., Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Inouye absence leads to blocked asbestos fund

By James Rowley
Bloomberg News Service

A proposed $140 billion fund for asbestos exposure victims was blocked in the U.S. Senate today as it failed to overcome an objection that the company-financed plan would cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Supporters fell one vote short of the required 60 votes to waive a budget rule barring legislation that increases government spending by $5 billion in any of four decades after 2016. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist held out a slim hope that the measure might be revived because of the absence of one senator, Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawai'i.

The Senate vote was 59-40 to waive the budget requirement, meaning that Inouye could be in position to cast the 60th and decisive vote to reconsider the fund if there is another roll call. The chief sponsors of the bill, Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said they haven't given up.

"We have just begun to fight," Specter said in a statement. He said Inouye told him he would vote to waive the budget rule and permit debate to continue, meaning "we may win this one yet." Inouye missed the Senate vote to be with his sick wife, Specter said.

Prior to the vote, Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said he would abandon the asbestos plan if it were blocked by a procedural impasse. "If we are unsuccessful this week in addressing asbestos, that is it for this year," he said. After the roll call, he said he hasn't decided if or when to move for reconsideration.

Opponents, citing a Congressional Budget Office study, warned that the fund might not take in enough revenue to cover all claims, forcing it to borrow money. Specter called the budget violation a technicality because the government would just be a conduit for private financing and the taxpayers wouldn't be at risk.