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Game theory in the popular press.

Capitol Hill's last-minute maneuvers

Tom Curry
November 19, 2002
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In homeland security debate, the battle of drug makers against trial lawyers flares anew

In the waning days of a session of Congress, members of the House and Senate often play a game of "chicken" in which members of one body insert provisions in a "must-pass" bill that the other body doesn't want to accept. One side must give in, or the bill dies. So it is again this year with the homeland security bill, which President Bush has urged Congress to send to his desk before it ends its lame-duck session.

LAST WEEK Republican House leaders wrote into the homeland security bill provisions that would give vaccine manufacturers some protection from liability lawsuits.

They also inserted in the bill provisions that give liability protection to airport security companies, pilots who use firearms to prevent hijackings and businesses that sell anti-terrorism technologies.

The week Democratic members of the Senate, joined by GOP Sens. John McCain and Susan Collins, will try to remove those items from the bill before sending it to Bush for his signature.


In this fall's congressional elections the Republicans were able to use the Senate's failure to enact the homeland security bill as a cudgel to beat Democratic candidates.

Now in the lame-duck session, House GOP leaders have seized the opportunity to ratchet up the pressure on the Democratic-controlled Senate.

If the House and Senate are unable to agree on the terms of the bill and it dies, Republicans may use that in an effort to bolster their control in the Senate, seeking to pin part of the blame on Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who is fighting for her seat in a Dec. 7 runoff election in Louisiana.

End-of-session maneuvering sometimes involves pork-barrel spending favored by a powerful senator or House member.

There may be a bit of that in the current standoff.

The House-passed bill would create a new homeland security research center. Democrats charged that the provision was tailored for Texas A&M University, where retiring Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, used to teach economics. Republicans said a number of universities might be eligible to be the home of the center.


More significant, the House-Senate battle goes to the heart of one of the most contentious issues in the nation's response to the Sept. 11 attacks: how to protect the American people against terrorists who would use the smallpox virus as a bioterror weapon.

"I'm assuming that Iraq has the smallpox virus. It's certainly the working hypothesis," said Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology, to a biosecurity conference in Las Vegas on Monday.

The Bush administration is expected to announce its policy on smallpox vaccination shortly.

The House-passed bill allows the new secretary of homeland security to declare that an actual or potential bioterror attack "makes advisable" the administration of the smallpox vaccine to certain categories of Americans, such as police officers and emergency medical workers.

But the smallpox vaccine can cause complications such as encephalitis. There are certain people, including pregnant women, cancer patients, and those suffering from eczema and other skin ailments, for whom the vaccine is especially risky.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one of every 1 million people vaccinated against smallpox will die. If mass smallpox vaccinations were ever required, hundreds of Americans may die from complications.

Democrats argue that people who suffer complications from the smallpox vaccine should have the right to file a lawsuit seeking damages from the companies that make the vaccine or from the doctor or nurse who administers it.

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