Specter's Asbestos Problem

By now, President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum (R.-Pa.) should have gotten the message across that the Senate’s big conservative guns are supposed to be backing liberal Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) in his primary race against conservative Rep. Pat Toomey (R.-Pa.). But it looks like someone may not have gotten the memo. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), who is backing Specter at least nominally, has now promised to bring asbestos litigation reform to the floor for a vote this week–he will even hold a cloture vote, if necessary. Frist’s bill would create a trust fund to compensate those harmed by asbestos, but would also limit their right to sue–a major goal of the Bush administration, since asbestos litigation has put countless companies out of business nationwide. “Senator Frist feels that providing compensation for asbestos victims is an urgent and important piece of legislation that the Senate needs to act on, which is why he is bringing it to the floor this week,” his spokeswoman Amy Call recently told The Hill. This will create a huge embarrassment for Specter, who promptly went to the press to complain. Specter, The Hill reports, “stressed that he was not criticizing Frist. But he said that his weekly meetings with stakeholders on asbestos reform have yielded ‘a tremendous amount of progress,’ adding that he is ‘afraid that cloture will hurt efforts to continue the negotiation process.'” In other words, Specter is afraid of an asbestos vote and would rather drag out the legislation at least until after the April 27 primary election. Specter’s campaign for the GOP nomination is in a very bad way right now. He did not benefit from recent revelations that he is the preferred candidate of billion-dollar Bush-hater George Soros. Nor was he well served by his debate performance this month, nor by allegations that an aide of his threatened to kill funding for a rail project in eastern Pennsylvania unless a Lehigh county commissioner backed Specter over Toomey. As next Tuesday’s election approaches, Specter is drawing 49% to Toomey’s 44% according to a Quinnipiac poll of likely voters released today. That’s a poor showing for an incumbent who led by 15 points in the same poll two weeks ago, and whose campaign just spent a shocking $7 million in the first quarter of the year. Specter’s quandary reflects the downside of middle-of-the-road opportunism: at some point, you get hit from all sides at once. If he votes this week against the asbestos bill, Specter will be bucking the President–whom he owes a huge favor for this week’s Pennsylvania trip–and creating one more issue for Toomey to use against him with the business community. If Specter votes for the bill–which seems more likely–he could alienate his lawyer contributors and union supporters, perhaps even hurting his chances in the general election. Then again, Specter may not have to worry about a general election.