- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 25, 2009

In an effort to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases, the House of Representatives voted Friday to lift a ban on using federal taxpayer dollars for needle exchange programs for drug users.

The vote to lift a longstanding ban on federal aid for such programs - in place since 1988 - came after a brief but passionate debate on an amendment by Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican, to keep the ban in place. His amendment failed by a 218-211 vote.

Mr. Souder said HIV is spread chiefly through sexual activities and that needle exchange programs do not have a proven record of success.

“Providing needles acts as a way for drug users to sustain and support their intravenous drug use and does not address the primary illness of the drug addiction,” he said.

But Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, California Democrat, said the scientific evidence is indisputable and that needle exchange programs put addicts into contact with social services agencies, opening the door for them to obtain treatment.

“Needle exchange is not about promoting drug use,” said Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, West Virginia Democrat. “It is in fact about preventing disease.”

The vote came as the House approved on a 264-153 vote a massive spending bill for health, labor and education programs for the upcoming budget year, endorsing big spending increases for a wide swath of social programs.

The measure funds a bevy of programs popular with lawmakers in both parties, such as health research, heating subsidies for the poor, aid to school districts and Pell Grants for low-income college students.

The $730.5 billion measure combines $163.5 billion in discretionary spending - the amount over which the panel has direct control - with $567 billion for federal benefit programs, mainly Medicare and Medicaid.

The measure would provide an $11 billion, or 7 percent, increase for these discretionary programs, including a big increase to help the Social Security Administration reduce its backlog of disability claims. But grants to local school districts and aid for special education will be essentially frozen at current levels, after the programs received significant funding in February’s $787 billion economic stimulus law.

Republicans protested that funding for special education would not receive an increase from 2009 levels and were blocked from being able to offer an amendment to add $1 billion to the $12.6 billion provided in the bill.

The bill also drops funding popular with conservatives for abstinence-only sex education. Critics have labeled the program ineffective. The measure would provide $114 million for a new teenage-pregnancy prevention initiative.

The measure also provides a $6 billion, or 10 percent, increase to the Department of Education and gives the National Institutes of Health a 3 percent increase of almost $1 billion.

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