For Pelosi, Asbestos Debate Personal

Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 13

When House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi stood up yesterday to oppose legislation increasing disclosure requirements for trusts set up to pay claims to people injured by exposure to asbestos, she cited two people with whom she served in Congress:

Former Rep. Bruce Vento of Minnesota died from  mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer, and current Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, who announced in June that she was being treated for lung cancer, which Pelosi said was caused by her exposure to asbestos.

“It is up to us to strengthen the health of those suffering from exposure,” Pelosi said. “It is up to us to act in their names, whether they suffer with cancer today or face the prospect of severe illness in the future.”

Opponents of the legislation said it was designed solely to enable companies to delay payments to those poisoned by asbestos.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Texas Republican Blake Farenthold, argued that the measure would help victims.

The legislation “protects asbestos exposure victims by ensuring there are funds available to compensate those whose symptoms are not apparent yet,” he said in a statement after the bill passed the House, largely along party lines. “It is unfortunate unscrupulous attorneys are gaming the system and double dipping with both state and federal claims.”

The bill would require the 60 trusts set up to handle asbestos lawsuits against bankrupt companies to file quarterly reports detailing who they’ve paid claims to and why. Bill supporters said that some lawyers collect payments from trusts, and then sue another corporation on behalf of the same victims without disclosing the earlier settlement.

The legislation was supported by Honeywell International Inc., whose political action committee donates more money than any other corporate PAC, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spends more to lobby Congress than anyone else.

A bill opponent, Michelle Schwartz of the Alliance for Justice, a Washington-based advocacy group, suggested that House Republicans were trying to make nice with the Chamber. The business lobby opposed the 16-day  partial government shutdown, which began after House Republicans refused to pass legislation keeping the government running unless the bill delayed or ended funding for President Barack Obama’s health-care law.

“With all the issues facing our country, it’s hard to imagine that the most pressing issue is denying justice for victims,” Schwartz said. “Maybe they’re trying to get out of the Chamber’s doghouse.”






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