House leaning toward adopting Senate version of Project Bioshield

Move that would accelerate passage of measure allowing government to expedite approval procedures for bioterror countermeasures.

House leaders are leaning toward adopting the Senate version of legislation enacting Project Bioshield, according to House and Senate aides -- a move that would accelerate passage of a measure to allow the government to expedite drug procurement and approval procedures for countermeasures against bioterror threats.

House leaders have not scheduled a floor vote. The Senate passed its Bioshield bill last month, and the House adopted its version last July. Differences in the two versions are minor.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, has no "particular concerns" that may be delaying the bill, a committee spokeswoman said. Regardless of whether House leaders decide to pass the Senate version -- a step that would eliminate the need for a conference -- or appoint conferees, "we'd like to see it pass sooner than later," the spokeswoman said.

The Bush administration has been pressing Congress to pass the Bioshield legislation, which allocates $5.6 billion to the Health and Human Services Department to award contracts and purchase vaccines, treatments and tests to combat bioterrorism weapons. The Senate version of the bill gives HHS control over the administration and finances of the national vaccine stockpile, while the House version would give the Homeland Security Department financial control.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate version allows the HHS secretary to accept proposals still in their early stages to combat newly identified bioterror threats. And the Senate bill also allows the HHS secretary to waive certain privacy rules in an emergency to permit hospitals to share patient information.

Meanwhile, work has started on a second bill, dubbed "Bioshield II," which is intended to address concerns the biomedical industry has about the current legislation, such as the lack of liability protections for products made under government contracts. Lawmakers say without the additions, some companies may not participate in the program.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said the panel would be examining whether manufacturers need additional liability protections. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., "is concerned that this is a roadblock for making sure these countermeasures are available," the spokeswoman said.