Washington–Prospects for passage of legislation this yearcreating a trust fund for handling of asbestos injury claims greweven dimmer last week, Capitol sources said.

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Lobbyists and congressional staff said that negotiations aimedat creating an asbestos injury medical criteria bill seen as thebest alternative to the trust fund are also stalled.

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Regarding floor action, lobbyists representing insuranceinterests said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., Senate majority whip,several weeks ago privately outlined to them criteria for puttingthe trust fund bill on the Senate floor that they judged to beunrealistic.

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Several lobbyists representing insurers and trade groupsmonitoring the bill, who asked for anonymity out of concern theirstatements could nettle lawmakers, reported that Sen. McConnell, ata small fundraiser, said the Senate Republican leadership will notallow the trust fund legislation to come back to the Senate floorunless there are 60 public votes for it, and “the leadership isassured that the debate won't consume more than three days.”

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The 60 votes are needed to overcome a budget point of order thatderailed the bill in late February. Since Sen. Arlen Specter,R-Pa., the primary supporter of the trust fund approach, is seen ashaving only 57 supporters, overcoming that barrier is viewed asunrealistic.

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Moreover, limiting debate to three days also seems unrealistic,since both supporters and detractors of the bill anticipate a hugenumber of amendments being offered even if the 60-vote point oforder threshold can be attained.

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The industry lobbyists also said that the next opportunity tobring the bill back to the Senate floor will be when Congressreturns April 24 from a two-week recess.

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The Senate plans to be focused on immigration for the next twoweeks and hopes to complete action on the pension bill before theApril recess, they noted.

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The lobbyists also point out that action even on an importantpension bill has slipped, with conferees making little progress andmost industry lobbyists and staffers for the conferees sayingcompleting work on the bill by Memorial Day is more likely.

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Regarding medical criteria for asbestos illness, the effort tofashion an alternative to the trust fund approach is being led bystaffers for Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Richard Durbin,D-Ill.

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Staff for Sens. Cornyn, Durbin and other members of the Senateinterested in the bill met for five hours on the issue last weekwith lobbyists for the insurance industry, businesses targeted byasbestos suits and trial lawyers, and made little progress, alobbyist familiar with the talks said.

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But no agreements on remaining issues were reached, and thestaff and lobbyists indicated afterward that they felt the talkswould heat up only if Sen. Specter appeared close to winning the 60votes needed to overcome the budget point of order that is nowstalling action on the bill.

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