A new plan would standardize victims’ payouts, but rifts between former allies are threatening chances for a litigation settlement. Rifts develop between former allies.

By Lorraine Woellert

For more than a decade, Corporate America has lobbied Congress for help to clean up the asbestos litigation mess. Now business groups are meeting face-to-face with insurers and labor unions for the first serious global settlement talks ever. But as peace negotiations progress, this is proving to be a much harder deal to close than anyone imagined.

The discouraging news from the bargaining table is deflating the once-high hopes of hundreds of companies mired in asbestos litigation. The political landscape to cap liability has never been better. President George W. Bush wants a deal, Republicans control Congress, and there is pressure to act before next year’s election.

But as negotiators burrow into details, rifts have developed between onetime allies who are crucial to the deal’s success. Big companies and small companies can’t agree on how to allocate payments to the trust fund. Some businesses, worried that the fund might run dry and they’ll be asked to open their wallets again, want the government to back the fund, but they’re butting up against Senate budget hawks.

LUKEWARM

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