Senate Approves Legislation To Establish New Department of Homeland Security
The Senate yesterday voted 90-9 to pass legislation that would establish a new Department of Homeland Security, the Washington Post reports (Dewar, Washington Post, 11/20). The department would assume the operations of 22 separate federal agencies. The legislation, which the House passed earlier this month, would make the department responsible for domestic security protection, which includes the education of health care workers to respond to potential terrorist attacks. Under the bill, some HHS responsibilities, such as chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear response programs and civilian bio-defense research, would transfer to the new department. The bill also includes a provision that provides legal protection to health care workers who provide smallpox vaccinations. Under the provision, individuals or facilities that provide vaccinations could not face personal liability from lawsuits filed by those injured or killed by the vaccine, and the federal government would defend the lawsuits and cover the cost of damage awards. The legislation would limit awards to compensation for injuries and would prohibit punitive damages (California Healthline, 11/14).
The Senate yesterday voted 52-47 against a Democratic amendment that would have removed several provisions from the bill criticized by some lawmakers as "giveaways to special interests," such as a provision that would that would limit liability for vaccine manufacturers (Washington Post, 11/20). The provision would protect vaccine manufacturers from lawsuits filed over allegations that thimerosal, a mercury-based vaccine preservative, causes autism in children (California Healthline, 11/18). The amendment, which had the support of most Senate Democrats and some Republicans, would have eliminated the provision. Although the amendment failed, Republicans agreed to "modify or eliminate" the vaccine liability provision and two other provisions next year after the bill becomes law (Washington Post, 11/20). Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) "secured assurances" from House GOP leaders that the House would "look favorably" on the revisions (Anderson, Los Angeles Times, 11/20). Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and other senators said that they received an "ironclad promise" from House and Senate Republican leaders, as well as the White House, to "essentially rescind" the provisions in the first appropriations bill that passes in the next Congress (Firestone, New York Times, 11/20).
However, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) questioned whether Republicans would adhere to the agreement. He added, "Why wait? I think it's always harder to take things out than put them in, and it will get even harder as we go into the next Congress. So I am very dubious" (New York Times, 11/20). The Los Angeles Times reports that passage of the amendment would have forced a conference committee to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of the homeland security bill and could have "doomed the bill for this year" (Los Angeles Times, 11/20). The failure of the amendment will allow President Bush to sign the legislation by the end of the month, although "it will probably be years before the new department has fully assumed all its functions," the New York Times reports (New York Times, 11/20).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.