- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Today, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) is scheduled to hold a hearing on federal biodefense readiness. It is a timely hearing, since the nation has a long way to go before it is adequately prepared against a biological attack. However, while committee members are discussing the next steps that they should take in this matter, the Senate has been dithering over taking the first one — passing S. 15, Project Bioshield.

Project Bioshield would allocate about $6 billion over the next decade to develop antidotes against biological agents likely to be deployed against Americans. Last March, it passed through the HELP Committee unanimously, but still hasn’t received a floor vote.

The principal problem appears to be Sen. Robert Byrd, who continues to hold up this critical legislation over concerns about its compulsory funding mechanism. Mr. Byrd reportedly fears that Bioshield’s mandatory money will mean fewer funds to secure U.S. ports and borders. Thanks to his unnecessary holdups, the debate over Project Bioshield has become embroiled in the larger fight over funding the Department of Homeland Security, in which Democrats are hoping to score political points by proclaiming that Republicans are underfunding domestic security. On Tuesday, Mr. Byrd made the point again by proposing a failed amendment that would have increased funding for Homeland Security by $1.75 billion.

In fairness, Mr. Byrd is merely opposed to Bioshield’s funding mechanism, not the necessity of its passage. He reportedly prefers the hybrid funding mechanism set up by the House version of Project Bioshield (H.R. 2122), which sets up a reserve fund from which discretionary spending on vaccine development flows. The administration put out a statement in favor of the House version, which passed by a vote of 421-2 last week.

We hope Mr. Byrd’s stubbornness has not permanently snarled Project Bioshield. Other Democrats are now beginning to question how much funding it should receive, given the failure to discover biological weapons in Iraq. That is an alarmingly short-sighted point of view, ignoring everything from the devastating capabilities of such weapons to the still at-large anthrax mailer.

The HELP Committee is properly taking a serious look at the many additional steps that must be taken to secure the country against a biological attack. However, that long journey must begin with the first step of passage of Project Bioshield.

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