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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bill speeding federal drug approvals clears Senate hurdle

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan bill to speed government drug approvals and bolster biomedical research cleared its last procedural hurdle in the Senate on Monday in an emotional moment for outgoing Vice President Joe Biden.

The overwhelming 85-13 vote put the measure on track for final legislative approval by the Senate as early as Tuesday. President Barack Obama has promised to sign the measure, one of the last for the president and the 114th Congress, whose leaders hope to adjourn by week’s end after a two-year session that has seen them clash frequently with the president.

The bill envisions providing $6.3 billion over the next decade, including $1.8 billion for cancer research. Obama had placed Biden in charge of a “moonshot” to find ways to cure and treat the disease, which killed his son Beau, 46, last year.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sought approval for renaming a portion of the bill after Beau Biden. The Senate agreed, and lawmakers of both parties applauded and lined up to share quiet words and pats on the shoulder with the vice president, who sat teary-eyed in the presiding officer’s chair of the chamber where he served as senator for 36 years. A clerk handed Biden a tissue.

“He’s known the cruel toll this disease can take. But he hasn’t let it defeat him,” McConnell said of Biden, citing his work leading the administration’s anti-cancer efforts.

“I’ve got to get better, and I will. It takes time,” Biden told reporters after the vote. He said McConnell’s gesture “validates all the years” he spent in the Senate and “makes me realize all the support I’ve had since my Beau died.”

The near 1,000-page package, which cleared the House overwhelmingly Wednesday with backing from Obama, would also steer funds to battling drug abuse and overhaul federal mental health programs.

Lawmakers were hoping to adjourn for the year by week’s end, clearing the decks of legislation under Obama’s presidency for a 2017 that will see Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the 115th Congress. The outgoing Congress and Obama have fought over the budget and health care, with each side frequently thwarting the other’s priorities.

Congress’ top priority for the week was approving legislation to keep the government functioning into next spring, when the new president and GOP lawmakers could put their stamp on budget priorities.

While the vice president is the Senate’s official presiding officer, he seldom appears to actually oversee the chamber’s business.

But Biden’s presence helped limit Democratic opposition to the legislation.

Some Democrats complained that the measure would make it easier for the pharmaceutical and medical device industries – strong supporters of the legislation –win federal approval for their products while raising risks to consumers. There was also anger that while the bill would require subsequent legislation by Congress to actually provide the money, it would lock in savings including cuts in a public health program created by Obama’s health care law.

Overall, the legislation maps spending $4.8 billion over the next 10 years for research by the National Institutes of Health, including a pair of Obama priorities: work on brain diseases and developing personalized medical treatments. McConnell has backed provisions supporting efforts to use adult stem cells to regenerate cells.

The bill plans state grants worth $1 billion over the next two years for preventing and treating abuse of addictive drugs like opioids and heroin. And it would establish new positions within the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate anti-drug efforts, but without much additional money.

To the chagrin of consumer groups, the bill lets the Food and Drug Administration use data summaries – instead of more detailed information – when considering whether to approve existing drugs for new uses. It allows the agency to approve drugs aimed at life-threatening infections based on test results from smaller numbers of patients.

Republicans planned to unveil legislation Tuesday to keep federal agencies functioning into early next year. That would give the next Congress and the incoming Trump administration time to approve more than $1 trillion for federal agencies through Sept. 30, when the government’s budget year ends.

Current spending expires at midnight Friday. Since the measure is the only must-do bill before Congress adjourns, it’s likely to carry several add-ons.

They include $170 million to help Flint, Michigan, repair its aging, lead-poisoned water system. Other items include about $4 billion to help Louisiana and other states rebuild from floods and other natural disasters, and money to partially meet the Obama administration’s $11.6 billion request for war-related money.

Meanwhile, House Democrats voted by voice to re-elect Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, despite grumbling that the party gained only a few seats in last month’s elections.