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Chambers Square Off Over Project Bioshield Funding

The House and Senate have taken different approaches to a presidential anti-terrorism initiative, leaving some Republicans siding against President Bush while some Democrats have lined up with him.

Project Bioshield, which Bush unveiled during his State of the Union address, seeks to inoculate the country against bioterror attacks. It would encourage pharmaceutical companies to discover and produce vaccines against such lethal agents as anthrax and Ebola so the government can buy and stockpile them in case of an attack.

The White House wants to establish permanent funding, thereby making it an entitlement program.

The Senate agreed and unanimously passed a bill through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, but key House chairmen do not want a new entitlement program.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee was set to mark up its version of the bill — which does not include the mandatory mechanism — Thursday when it postponed the meeting at the administration’s request.

“It’s unacceptable to have unlimited, open-ended financing for this,” Homeland Security Chairman Chris Cox (R-Calif.) said last week.

Cox’s nascent panel held a joint hearing on the program with Energy and Commerce and has a major stake in the final product.

He would prefer that Congress authorize and appropriate a fixed amount to cover the life of the program.

“A permanent, indefinite program is not the way to go,” Cox said, adding that if the program were to be left on auto-pilot, taxpayers may continuously foot the bill for something that is no longer a top priority and possibly not even necessary. He is not alone.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has put a “hold” on the Senate bill — disallowing it from being brought to the floor under unanimous consent — because of the funding mechanism.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said earlier this week that he hoped to get the bill to the floor quickly. Calling the legislation “important to the country,” he said he would allow Byrd to address his issue through the amendment process to get the bill moving.

The measure has overwhelming Senate support and its sponsor, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), has tried to broker a deal with Byrd, Gregg spokeswoman Christine Iverson said. Since those efforts failed, Gregg is prepared to bring up the bill as written, she added.

The administration says permanent-funding authority is necessary if manufacturers are going to be enticed to pump millions into research and development.

The private sector must know that it has a buyer — the government — if its efforts prove successful and vaccines are discovered, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has told lawmakers.

The House markup is scheduled to resume next week, but it is unclear if Bush will get his way.

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