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Senate Passes Large Health Spending Bill

Bill Includes Funds for Bird Flu; Debate on Stem Cell is Delayed

WebMD Health News

Oct. 28, 2005 -- The U.S. Senate passed a huge health spending bill Thursday, approving new emergency funding for bird flu preparedness but delaying a contentious debate on the future of embryonic stem cell research.

The measure spends $476 billion on federal health programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and the National Institutes of Health. Senators voted to spend about $3 billion more on health and medical programs that President Bush requested in his fiscal 2006 budget.

Most major health agencies saw their budgets increased over last year. But large budget deficits may prevent many government programs from getting the same increases this year.

Senators voted to spend $6 billion through the CDC, nearly $2 billion more than was requested by the White House. The National Institutes of Health, which enjoyed a doubling of its budget a couple of years ago, saw a $1 billion increase from last year to $29.4 billion.

Hot Political Issues

The bill, which controls spending in the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, is traditionally a magnet for politically charged issues.

The Senate bill this week became a platform for $8 billion in emergency spending for vaccines and drugs combating bird flu. President Bush is expected to unveil a national bird flu preparedness plan next week, and bill sponsors, all Democrats, said the money would rapidly fund the plan once it is finalized.

A version of the spending bill passed the House in June without any comparable bird flu spending. House and Senate negotiators will have to work out the differences between the bills before sending it to the president for his signature.

Stem Cell Debate Delayed

Thursday's bill passed without what many expected would be a protracted debate on embryonic stem cell research. A majority of senators support expanding a three-year-old White House policy strictly limiting federal funding for the research, and key lawmakers had threatened to attach an expansion to the spending bill.

That ultimately did not happen because Republican leaders asked Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), chairman of the health appropriations subcommittee and chief sponsor of stem cell expansion legislation, not to offer the politically contentious legislation this week.

Doing so, leaders argued, would plunge the Senate into a protracted debate over embryonic stem cells. Opponents of the expansion have vowed to use the stem cell debate to push other measures, including a ban on all forms of human cloning and bans on other forms of research using embryos.

"January will give us a chance to consider it all in one bite," Specter told WebMD following Thursday's vote.

The House passed a bill expanding embryonic research in May by a large margin.

Thursday's bill passed 97 to 3. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), ranking member of the Budget Committee, tells WebMD that he voted against the bill because it unnecessarily expanded the federal debt by increasing spending nearly $100 billion over last year's bill.

"I voted 'no' to be the canary in the mine shaft and signal the warning that we are in very serious trouble" in terms of spending, he said.

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