Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Rep. Chris Cannon is headed for a showdown with Senate veterans and others over asbestos compensation legislation.

WASHINGTON — He doesn't have the venerable name recognition or decades of experience of senators like Patrick Leahy, Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch.

But Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, is headed toward a collision with the Senate veterans and others over his asbestos compensation legislation, introduced Wednesday evening.

"The Senate bill is fundamentally flawed," Cannon said.

He sits on the Judiciary Committee, where he believes there are enough Republican votes to send the measure to the floor. There, he says, it has the support of House Majority Leader Tom Delay.

Unlike the Senate bill, which sets up a $140 billion trust fund to compensate victims of asbestos-related disease, Cannon's bill sets up medical criteria whereby people would have to prove they are indeed victims of asbestos poisoning to receive compensation. If they are not sick, there is no compensation, but they do not lose their right to sue in the future if they do become sick.

Cannon enlisted the support of former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who is now chairman of the grass-roots movement Freedom Works, which turned out a couple dozen sign-waving supporters for a press conference Wednesday.

The Senate bill, Armey said, is nothing more than "a government-sponsored slush fund — a Coca-Cola Cowboy. It's telling the tort lawyers to dive in and help yourself, there's $7 billion for you."

Asbestos legislation has smoldered on Capitol Hill for years, but this year the issue appears to be picking up steam with the bipartisan Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act, co-sponsored by Hatch.

Republicans and Democrats agree that asbestos litigation has gotten out of hand with literally tens of thousands of lawsuits, many by people who aren't even sick. Cannon said the lawsuits have resulted in scores of bankruptcies, 60,000 lost jobs and billions of dollars in lost revenue to the economy.

Between 1940 and 1980, some 27.5 million workers were exposed to asbestos on the job and almost 19 million were exposed to high levels over long periods.

The Senate bill sets up a compensation schedule with victims of mesothelioma receiving $1.1 million, lung cancer victims getting $300,000 to $1.1 million, and lesser amounts for other cancers, asbestosis and "mixed diseases."

Congress would kick in $43 billion to the fund, but most of it would come from assessments on the businesses now assaulted by asbestos litigation.

"We must halt the harm asbestos creates, and ameliorate the harm it has already caused," said Leahy, D-Vt., the primary sponsor of the bill. "The industrial and insurer participants in the trust fund will gain the benefits of financial certainty and relief from the stresses of litigation in the tort system, and the victims will have a quicker and more efficient path to recovery."

But Cannon — and he believes he has the Republican majority in the House on his side — is opposed to the Senate bill because it establishes no medical criteria whereby "victims" must show actual harm. And they also see it as a windfall for trial attorneys.

Freedom Works has launched a print and radio campaign against the Senate bill and in favor of Cannon's legislation.

"Chris Cannon has prepared the right bill," Armey said.

Freedom Works is calling the Senate bill a $140 billion tax on small and medium-sized companies, which would have their insurance coverage stripped at the same time they would be required to pay into the trust fund.

For example, Hopeman Brothers shipbuilders in Virginia used asbestos in the wall and ceiling panels on the interior of ships it built over much of the past century. And they did it at the insistence of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Now the company is facing about 40,000 lawsuits, which are paid from the company's insurance coverage. Now it faces the prospect of paying $15 million to $25 million a year into the trust fund. And since the company has never made that much profit in a single year, it will go bankrupt under the Senate bill, said company CEO David Lascell, who appeared in support of Cannon's bill.

Armey predicted the Senate bill will fail "under its own weight" and that will leave Cannon's bill as the most viable option.

But it may come down to the Senate passing a trust fund bill and the House passing a medical criteria provisions bill, and then the two sides working out a compromise.

"In the end, this has to be about people," Cannon said. "It's not anti-trial lawyer; it's pro-sick people."