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Legislators Shine Spotlight on Response to Bioterrorism

Anthrax: Congress seeks to outlaw hoaxes, irradiate mail and stockpile vaccines.


WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) came to the National Naval Medical Center on Wednesday to thank the microbiologists who identified the anthrax that threatened his staff, view the deadly bacteria under a microscope and pitch a plan for billions of dollars to counter bioterrorism.

At the same time, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was pushing legislation to impose strict controls on who can handle anthrax and other deadly agents that can be turned into weapons. And a House Judiciary panel was moving to criminalize anthrax hoaxes.

On Capitol Hill, where legislators have been jolted in recent weeks by the anthrax scare, bioterrorism has become an unstoppable issue--likely to be addressed on multiple fronts before Congress finishes for the year.

Some legislation should draw little opposition. No legislator will argue that people have a right to scare the public with the joking or malicious use of suspicious white powder that turns out to be talcum or sugar. Nor will anyone quibble with efforts to track down how many laboratories stock anthrax for legitimate research.

But efforts to pour more money immediately into the anti-bioterrorism campaign could meet resistance from President Bush.

So far the administration has proposed spending $1.5 billion to answer the threats. Those emergency funds would be added to $345 million budgeted for bioterrorism programs in the Department of Health and Human Services. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said last month that the proposal would substantially strengthen government capabilities by investing in state and local readiness and expanding stocks of smallpox vaccine, antibiotics and other medical supplies.

This week, the administration also announced that it would channel $175 million to the U.S. Postal Service to buy irradiation equipment to sanitize mail and take other steps to protect postal workers.

But senators from both parties are talking about doubling the Bush proposal, and House Democrats--eager to push a politically popular spending measure in opposition to Republican-sponsored tax cuts--would more than quadruple it.

Daschle has a personal stake in the matter. Twenty of his aides who work in the Hart Senate Office Building were found to be exposed to anthrax spores after a letter addressed to him was opened there Oct. 15. Health officials say none has shown signs of actual illness; all the aides and many others who were in the area at the time are taking precautionary antibiotics.

The majority leader, touring the naval hospital in Bethesda, Md., drew a spotlight to critical parts of the bioterrorism response system. He visited a pharmacy that dispensed more than 2,700 bottles of Cipro and other antibiotics to people who might have ventured into anthrax-tainted spots in the Washington area. He visited a clinical laboratory that studied 7,100 nasal swab samples taken in mid-October to help map the extent of anthrax exposure in the capital, peering into a microscope to view dead, stained bacteria developed in a culture from a swab of one of his aides who tested positive.

And he plugged a $3.1-billion proposal by Senate Democrats to bolster national stockpiles of vaccines and medicine and improve federal, state and local ability to respond to suspicious outbreaks of disease.

Asked to respond to a threat Bush made this week to veto any spending measure this year that exceeds a $40-billion emergency fund created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Daschle said: "We ought to be able to work it out."

Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) are negotiating with the administration on bioterrorism proposals and expect to introduce legislation as early as next week. "We hope the bill will be a consensus bill," said Frist spokeswoman Margaret Camp.

While some legislators are drafting spending proposals, others are zeroing in on legal issues raised by the anthrax scare. Feinstein, who heads a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, formally introduced a bill Wednesday that would make it a crime for individuals to possess certain pathogens and toxins that could be used as weapons. Laboratories possessing the material would face strict new certification requirements. Violators of the law could be punished by civil fines or up to five years in jail.

The bill was finalized a day after authorities testifying before Feinstein's panel acknowledged that they did not know how many U.S. laboratories handle anthrax.

Also Wednesday, a House Judiciary crime subcommittee considered a bill to crack down on anthrax hoaxes. James F. Jarboe, head of a domestic terrorism unit in the FBI, told the panel that federal agents have responded to more than 7,000 reports of suspicious letters since mid-September. In addition, the bureau has begun 305 anthrax-related investigations in that time, more than double the annual number of cases dealing with reports of weapons of mass destruction.

Most of the reports have turned out to be false alarms. According to the Justice Department, 36 people have been arrested on charges connected to anthrax hoaxes in recent weeks.

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