WASHINGTON: Major US corporations ranging from Pfizer to Halliburton are mobilizing scores of public affairs professionals across Washington this fall in hopes that the new legislative session will bring an end to years of costly asbestos-related lawsuits.
Working separately as the Asbestos Study Group (ASG) and the Asbestos Alliance (AA), hundreds of major companies that have either manufactured or used asbestos are lobbying for protection from more than 600,000 asbestos lawsuits now pending in US courts. A bill that would create a $108 billion trust fund from which victims could receive compensation is expected to be considered by the Senate this fall.
Many in Congress consider the bill, which would also bar future asbestos-related lawsuits, a high priority, but newly revived debates over energy policy and Iraq threaten to sidetrack the long-simmering issue. Hence, a vast army of public affairs professionals is mobilizing to preserve the momentum.
The ASG has retained The Harbour Group and its lobbying affiliates Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman, as well as its strategic ally Alexander Strategy Group, to communicate its agenda to opinion leaders in the "elite press."
The AA, which is run largely by the National Association of Manufacturers, is using Porter Novelli for both paid and earned media.
Many individual companies are also using their own AORs to keep up the pressure. Burson-Marsteller and its grassroots division, Direct Impact, have acknowledged doing work on the issue for existing clients.
"I think we have senators on both sides of the aisle convinced that reforming the system is
the right thing to do," said Joel Johnson, managing director of The Harbour Group. "So now we want to keep the pressure on and keep the messages about fairness and victims and working families."
PN partner Carloyn Teeger, who has personally been working on the asbestos issue since 1983, said that hopes are high that this session can bring closure to the debate. "This is something that is needed both for the victims as well as the economy," she said.
The bill, sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), has elicited opposition from the insurance industry and trial lawyers. The traditional Democratic allies are concerned
about the cost and handling of the trust.
Johnson acknowledged that such sticking points could prove troublesome. "The details are complicated, and that's what we're struggling with," he said.