December 13, 2005

Burr's Bill Loosing Steam

Burr's bill loses steam as critics gain traction


Sen. Richard Burr's freshman-year project -- a bill to speed development of new drugs and vaccines against pandemics and bioterrorist attacks -- was supposed to be on the fast track.

The Winston-Salem Republican introduced it Oct. 17. It was approved a day later, on a voice vote, by the Senate Health Committee. And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had hoped to give it a full Senate vote in early November.

But the upper chamber is close to adjourning for the year and Burr's ambitious bill has yet to resurface.

What's going on?

"He's been negotiating with Democrats ... for a long time," said Burr spokesman Doug Heye. "He'd like it to be a bipartisan bill."

Some have interpreted that to mean that Burr doesn't have enough votes and is busy changing the bill in order to get them.

While the N.C. senator negotiates, criticism of the legislation -- mostly from interest groups and bloggers -- appears to be getting louder.

For weeks, the main objection was that Burr's bill would shield drug companies from liability lawsuits. He has said some protection is necessary to entice profit-minded companies that have been reluctant to develop the new medicines.

Now the legislation is under fire from groups who say Burr would create a new federal outfit -- the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency, or BARDA -- and then wrap it in secrecy.

As passed by the Senate committee, the bill would exempt BARDA from the Freedom of Information Act, which requires federal agencies to disclose records requested in writing. In the 40-year history of the law, no other federal agency has ever received such a blanket exclusion.

Among the groups speaking out: the Federation of American Scientists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the National Vaccine Information Center, a patients' advocacy group.

"It is an act of contempt for the public and for open government and hopefully will not be adopted," Steven Aftergood, head of the scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, told the Washington Post.

Burr spokesman Heye told the Observer that the bill's secrecy provisions will likely be fine-tuned.

"We've been working with some of those groups, to talk about the language (in the bill) and address their concerns," he said. "Nobody at BARDA will be able to classify information. In fact, they'll be putting out information every day."

Still, Heye said, the bill will retain some exemptions to FOIA: to protect companies' proprietary information and to keep would-be terrorists from finding out which threats the country isn't yet prepared to take on.

So when will Burr's re-written bill arrive on the Senate floor? This week? Next year?

Heye's answer is the same he's been giving since late October: "It will be voted on soon."

Reporter: Tim Funk: (202) 383-6057;

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