Congress Near Passing Anti-Bioterror Bill

Legislation aimed at strengthening the nation's defenses against biological attacks appears near passage.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., predicted Thursday that a bill could be passed and sent to President Bush before Congress adjourns next week for the Memorial Day recess.

Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, are the lead negotiators of the deal.

Tauzin said staffers working to reconcile versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate have been "instructed to work diligently over the weekend."

The bills, both around $3 billion, have similar provisions. Both would increase vaccine stockpiles; establish a new assistant secretary for emergency preparedness within the Department of Health and Human Services; and enact greater controls over dangerous agents kept in laboratories around the country.

The bills also increase funding so the Food and Drug Administration can hire more inspectors to protect the nation's food supply.

There are areas that remain unresolved. Lawmakers are still trying to determine the mix by which grants will be administered to states and localities.

Also, the House version calls for drinking water systems across the country to assess their vulnerability to terrorist attack and develop emergency plans. The Senate wants those plans to be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency, but House Republicans say the agency does not have the capacity to handle such sensitive information.

Lawmakers are also considering adding several unrelated measures to the bill. One would renew a law that allows the FDA to charge fees to pharmaceutical companies to pay for speedier review of new medications.