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Texas Fights Kansas’ Bid for Research Lab

Downtown’s two biggest lobbying shops are shining up their Gucci loafers for a showdown over where to put the nation’s next bio-defense facility.

Patton Boggs lobbyists will meet Wednesday with the Texas Biological and Agro-Defense Consortium, a group that is trying to press lawmakers to overrule a decision by the Department of Homeland Security to move the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility from Plum Island, N.Y., to a proposed site in Manhattan, Kan. San Antonio was a finalist to host the lab.

Patton Boggs lobbyist James Reeder said the parties will agree today on how to educate Members of Congress that the Plains state site — located in the middle of a tornado alley — could become “a Kansas Chernobyl,— a reference to the meltdown of a Ukrainian nuclear power plant in 1986 that killed 56 people and sickened thousands.

“We all feel that Members of Congress, especially those on the appropriate committees, need to know the dangers of building this lab in Kansas,— Reeder said. “As they continue this appropriations process, we intend to impart that knowledge to the key players in Congress on it.—

By some estimates, the new facility could cost $500 million or more to build. And like federal defense facilities, the planned DHS site — whether in Kansas, Texas or elsewhere — is expected to incubate considerable economic activity in tough financial times.

The Kansas Bioscience Authority, which is pressing to make sure the site gets built in the Jayhawk State, continues to retain Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld to press appropriators to keep funding the project.

Looking to add to the tax base during difficult economic times, Members and state delegations, too, are getting in on the act.

In Roll Call’s ranking of the top 25 lobbying shops for the first half of 2009, Patton Boggs charged $18.5 million in fees, while Akin Gump brought in $16 million. The two firms have held the top two spots in Roll Call’s list for three of the past four years.

According to court documents, the DHS in late 2008 decided to move its Eisenhower-era bio-defense facility from Long Island to Manhattan, home to Kansas State University. After a competitive bid process that apparently brought personal pleas from Members and states willing to cough up free land and infrastructure upgrades, the DHS settled on a handful of sites as finalists, including one each in Texas and Mississippi.

At the proposed site, scientists will wear spacesuits “with their own air supply and undergo extensive decontamination procedures each time they exit the lab due to the fact that the pathogens being researched result in certain death to any organism they infect,— according to court documents.

Agency scientists are expected to conduct research on African swine fever, classical swine fever, foot and mouth disease, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, Nipah and Hendra viruses and contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, court records show.

“Outbreaks of highly contagious Foot and Mouth Disease, in recent years in the United Kingdom and in the United States in the 1950s, have had a crippling impact on the cattle industry, requiring the mass slaughter of millions of animals,— Patton Boggs attorney Michael Guiffre argued earlier this year in a failed court complaint filed on behalf of the Texas team. “Manhattan, Kan., is located in close proximity to the heaviest concentration of cattle in the nation.—

The Texas consortium also alleged in court documents that Republican Kansas Sens. Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts conferred with DHS officials in meetings that violated agency policy.

In an interview with Roll Call on Tuesday, Brownback brushed off accusations that he put political pressure on agency officials to move the site to his state. After all, he said, President George W. Bush, the former governor of Texas, was in the White House at the time — and he still signed off on the appropriations bill that first funded the Kansas site.

“I thought it was a very odd charge that they would charge Kansas with undue political influence when it’s a Texas president that signs off on this being done in Kansas,— Brownback said. “I found it quite a compliment actually to me and our delegation, but I didn’t put much stock in it.—

Brownback also argued that there is no perfect place to house the dangerous laboratory, saying, “you just have to build a facility that can withstand it.—

“The Department of Homeland Security had a very thorough vetting process and decided to place it in Kansas. We should go with their vetting process and not with someone who didn’t win the bid,— he said. “The facility really fits in Kansas with the concentration of the animal health industry that’s right there — 30 percent of the global animal health industry is right there.—

“There are tornados in Texas,— Brownback added. “Any facility you build anywhere in the country is going to have to plan for any sort of rare but potentially dangerous event — earthquakes or tornados or hurricanes or whatever the case might be.—

Akin Gump lobbyist John Simmons, who represents the Kansas team, said his job for the immediate future is to make sure that this year’s appropriations check gets written and that the process does “not get sidetracked with all of this political focus.—

“For the past 18 months, we’ve been working with Congressional committees, and the agencies are aware what the NBAF mission is,— he said. “We’re confident that in conference the money will be there.—

Reeder and his team are hoping that a Government Accountability Office report on the laboratory’s location will be published before final appropriations language is written in conference.

“If that thing shows that this shouldn’t be done, then I would think that would have some effect upon a Congressman’s attitude to appropriating money to build it,— Reeder said.

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