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Frist in Deal to Reverse Vaccine-Liability Decision

Provision to benefit drug makers had been a late addition to the homeland security bill.

January 11, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) announced a deal Friday to repeal controversial measures tacked onto the law creating the new Homeland Security Department, including an amendment granting vaccine-preservative makers liability protection.

The provisions were inserted into the legislation at the eleventh hour last fall. Critics said the provisions were unrelated to the main bill and were inserted to benefit special interests.

The agreement to undo the provisions was a departure from the norm on Capitol Hill.

Frequently, special-interest favors are slipped into bills at the end of a congressional session. Rarely, if ever, are they yanked off the books within weeks of enactment.

But that is just what the Republican-led Congress is about to do under the pact Frist and his House counterparts struck with a trio of GOP centrists.

Legislation to scrap the vaccine-liability language, repeal another provision that benefits companies that move overseas to avoid taxes and alter a third criticized as an unfair break for Texas A&M University will move in the Senate next week, Frist said.

It then is expected to win speedy approval from the House. The legislation will be attached to a major government spending bill that President Bush is expected to sign.

The deal honored a pledge made last year by Frist's predecessor, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). But it still represented a major concession by the new majority leader in his first week on the job.

The agreement could help Frist bank a critical amount of goodwill from GOP centrists as he seeks their much-needed support for Bush's ambitious legislative agenda.

"I appreciate [Frist's] efforts to address these unresolved issues from the homeland security bill," said one of the three centrists, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.). "This is a positive sign of Sen. Frist's willingness to work with moderates within the party." Lawmakers and aides marveled at the deal, a setback for some influential Washington lobbies.

"It's not a normal occurrence," said Dave Lemmon, an aide to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a leading critic of the vaccine provision. "And for Washington, this is lightning-quick."

During the final debates last year on the homeland security bill, Frist had argued forcefully for the language granting liability protection to makers of mercury-based vaccine preservatives.

As sponsor of a separate vaccine bill that contained nearly identical language, Frist said such measures were needed to boost an industry essential for public health. His argument was highly influential -- in part because he is the only physician in the Senate and is one of his party's leaders on medical issues.

At the time, Frist voted against a Democratic amendment to strike the vaccine-liability language and the other provisions that came under criticism.

But the issue did not go away. Critics accused congressional Republicans of tilting the legal system in favor of drug companies and at the expense of autistic children.

Hundreds of parents have alleged in lawsuits that the vaccine preservative thimerosal caused autism in their children. Eli Lilly & Co., the preservative's chief maker, and other defendants in the suits deny the charge.

Under the provision added to the homeland security bill, plaintiffs in the thimerosal litigation are forced to seek compensation out of court, through a special fund for victims. Under the proposal Frist agreed to Friday, the provision would be repealed and the legal cases could proceed.

However, Frist secured a commitment from Chafee and his two GOP allies, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine, for the Senate to revisit the issue later in the year. He told reporters he wants "a more comprehensive approach" to vaccine-related reforms.

Asked if he had changed his mind about the need for certain liability protections for the vaccine industry, Frist said: "Absolutely not."

The provision that involves U.S. corporations with overseas headquarters allows those companies to obtain federal homeland security contracts if they meet certain conditions. Under the repeal agreement, they would face much steeper hurdles to obtaining such contracts.

The third provision targeted by Friday's deal centers on language in the law intended to promote homeland-security research. Critics said the language gave Texas A&M an edge in obtaining government money -- a nod to influential Texas Republicans. Under the Frist-brokered deal, more colleges and universities would be eligible to compete for the research grants.

The deal followed through on the promise Lott made to Chafee, Collins and Snowe in November. The three had threatened to vote for the Democratic amendment to strip the controversial provisions from the homeland security bill.

Had the amendment passed, Lott feared the entire bill might have been sunk. So Lott promised the provisions would be revisited in the new Congress. Negotiating in the Senate Republican cloakroom during a crucial roll call, Lott got House leaders to approve the deal by phone. He reached Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), en route to Turkey.

But Lott last month was toppled as Republican leader after making a remark considered racially divisive. It had been unclear, until Friday, whether Frist, who is considered a strong ally of Lilly and other pharmaceutical companies, would honor Lott's word.

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