November 14, 2002While senators remain focused on debate over personnel rules for the new Homeland Security Department, that issue is far from the only controversial matter remaining in the bill. From vaccine liability protections to a delay in an airport baggage-screening deadline, the GOP-drafted bill that passed the House Wednesday and heads to the Senate Thursday includes contentious measures quietly written into the bill as the congressional session draws to a close.
Senate leaders, determined to create the Homeland Security Department before the year's end, are likely to accept most of the provisions. Still, the new debates could push a final vote on the underlying bill into next week.
Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who wrote the Democrats' version of the bill, said he is "especially concerned" about the latest GOP bill, because it contains "a number of special-interest provisions that are being sprung on the Senate without prior warning or consideration. This is really not the time for that."
"We all ought to be focusing on the terrorist threat, the need to create a Department of Homeland Security to meet that threat, and not on using a vehicle that is moving, probably to passage, to put into it a host of pet personal projects," Lieberman said.
Chief among the concerns of Lieberman and others are provisions to eliminate or reduce a manufacturer's product liability, two of which relate to vaccines. According to the new bill, a broad range of items, from drugs to life preservers, could escape liability lawsuits if the head of the homeland security department designated them as "necessary for security purposes."
Limited liability protections already in place for vaccines would be expanded to include vaccine components, such as the preservative Thimerosal, manufactured by Eli Lilly & Co. and already the subject of several class-action lawsuits by parents who claim the product's high mercury levels have caused their children's autism.
An aide to Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who had included a similar provision in a vaccine bill he introduced earlier in the year, said the senator did not press House GOP leaders to include the Thimerosal provision in the homeland bill.
The aide said the language essentially codifies a recommendation an independent vaccine advisory committee made to the Clinton administration.
"There is a concern about liability destabilizing the vaccine system," he said.
But Democratic aides point out that Thimerosal is a preservative unnecessary for the production of the vaccines and suggest that the language is an effort to cut back on the lawsuits.
Yet another provision in the bill would require liability claims against smallpox vaccine manufacturers to go through the federal tort system. The federal government would pay the damages, and punitive damages would be banned.
The new bill also would limit liabilities for airport screening companies and high-tech firms that develop equipment essential to ensure domestic security.
It would aid the airline industry further by extending aviation war-risk insurance for a year and giving airports another year to install baggage-screening equipment. It would also allow pilots to carry handguns in airline cockpits.
The latest version of the homeland bill strips several provisions that were top priorities to key members of Congress.
Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lieberman were enraged to find out that the new bill removes language calling for an independent commission to examine the roots of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Without an investigation by such an independent commission, Daschle said, "we will never fully have an objective evaluation."
Daschle also said the bill guts congressional oversight over a critical part of the federal government.
The bill does not include $1.2 billion to increase passenger rail and tunnel security, though the funds were in the earlier Senate version.
"We're very disappointed," said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., a rail advocate and former member of the Amtrak board of directors. "Our failure to act to improve security of our rail travel is an Achilles heel in our nation's efforts to secure our transportation system," Carper said.
The bill also drops provisions that would have applied Davis-Bacon protections to workers contracting with the Homeland Security Department and a provision that would have safeguarded the public's ability to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out information about the department.
Mark Wegner contributed to this report.
November 14, 2002