Science bills head to lame duck session

U.S. lawmakers seek to act on issues including stem cells and biodefense before Congress adjourns

Ted Agres
Nov 8, 2006
Members of the U.S. House and Senate will return to Washington on Nov. 13 for a post-election "lame duck" session of Congress, hoping to pass key measures before adjourning for the holidays and the year. Vying for congressional attention is a spate of bills of interest to the biomedical research community, including legislation related to stem cell research, incentives for conducting biodefense research, and increased penalties for animal rights terrorism. Any bill not enacted by year's end will have to be reintroduced when the 110th session of Congress convenes next year with Democrats controlling the House for the first time since 1994, and likely the Senate for the first time since 2002, depending on the outcome of the contest in Virginia. "It's a formidable agenda of things [the lawmakers] want to act on during the lame duck session," said David Moore, vice president for government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges. Predicting which, if any, of the bills will bear fruit is difficult, given other competing interests, the relatively short time available, and the imperative to enact past-due budget bills for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other Federal agencies. "With the Democrats in control of the House, all bets are off in the lame duck session," Moore told The Scientist. "The conventional wisdom is to let the Democrats figure out how to do the budget next year," he said. But the fact that House Democrats will control the budget agenda next year doesn't mean more funds will be available, said Jon Retzlaff, legislative affairs director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "It will be the same fiscal environment," he pointed out. "You're still talking about huge expenses for the Iraq war and everything else."Congress has passed Fiscal 2007 budgets only for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, leaving the rest of the Federal government to operate on a continuing resolution (CR) through November 17. If agreement cannot be reached on the remaining nine appropriations bills - as has happened for the past several years - lawmakers will either wrap the disparate budget measures into a single omnibus bill or pass a long-term CR and hand the baton to the new Congress. Stem cells: One casualty of this summer's human embryonic stem cell battle may get a second chance during the lame duck session. The Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act (S 2754) directs NIH to support alternative ways of deriving the stem cells without destroying embryos. The measure unanimously passed the Senate in July but failed in the House. Bill sponsor Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md), who easily won re-election, will decide this week whether to pursue passage, said spokesperson Lisa Wright. "But there's very limited time and room to breath during the lame duck," she told The Scientist. Bioterrorism R&D: To help private companies develop bioterror-related vaccines and therapies, the House passed the Biodefense and Pandemic Vaccine and Drug Development Act (HR 5533) in September. The bill would offer R&D grants to bridge the funding gap between discovery and procurement. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who is not up for re-election until 2010, has attached his version of the same bill to a related Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (S 3678). "We are hopeful we will have a vote before the end of the year," said Burr spokesperson Laura Caudell. If passed, the Senate bill, which offers companies about $500 million annually in grants, would need to be reconciled with the House version, which offers around $160 million a year. Animal rights terrorism: The Senate approved the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (S 3880) in late September to expand protection for researchers by outlawing economic damage against "animal enterprises," which include organizations involved in academic and commercial research and testing. The legislation provides a graduated scale of prison time and fines for those found guilty of harassing, intimidating, trespassing against or vandalizing the property of anyone associated with animal research. The House version (HR 4239) awaits action in the Judiciary Committee. "It is our hope we would be able to bring this to the House floor during the lame duck session," said Lindsay Bowers, spokesperson for bill sponsor Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), who ran unopposed this year. "We have a lot of support in the House," she told The Scientist. Scientific competitiveness and innovation: A bipartisan group of 12 Senate leaders in September introduced the American Competitiveness and Innovation Act (S 3936), a bill that would earmark $20 billion in new spending over five years to enhance innovation and competitiveness by boosting Federal research, as well as science and math education. Similar bills (HR 5356 and HR 5358) have cleared the House Science Committee but have not yet made it to the House floor for a full vote. "We are hopeful we may be able to free them up for consideration," said Joe Pouliot, the committee's communications director, "but we have no assurances." Fiscally minded Republicans and the White House have expressed concern over the bill's proposed spending levels, he noted. Ted Agres Links within this article:Association of American Medical Colleges www.aamc.orgAppropriations bills Agres, "US Congress passes FY05 budgets," The Scientist, Nov. 24, 2004 Agres, "Stem cell supporters upset by Bush veto," The Scientist, July 20, 2006"Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act" (S 2754) Agres, "US weighs biodefense matters," The Scientist, Nov. 2, 2005"Biodefense and Pandemic Vaccine and Drug Development Act" HR 5533"Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act" (S 3880) Agres, "Animal activists sentenced," The Scientist, Sept. 13, 2006"Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act" (Introduced in House) HR 4239"American Competitiveness and Innovation Act" (S 3936)"Research for Competitiveness Act" (HR 5356) and Mathematics Education for Competitiveness Act (HR 5358) '