Slaughter's quest undone by 'Dr. No'; Senator blocks bill on gene profile bias

Buffalo News
August 14, 2007

Slaughter’s quest undone by ‘Dr. No’;
Senator blocks bill on gene profile bias

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It looked like Rep. Louise M. Slaughter had finally won her 12-year battle to pass a bill protecting Americans against discrimination based on their genetic profile.

But then the Senate’s “Dr. No” got in the way.

After Slaughter’s bill passed the House by a 420-3 vote in April, the bill went to the Senate, where Sen. Tom Coburn placed a “hold” on it. That’s a courtesy power available to every senator, indefinitely barring a bill from final passage.

Invoking a hold is nothing unusual for the Oklahoma Republican. The physician-turned-politician recently told a group of health care lobbyists and congressional aides that he had placed holds on 87 pieces of Senate business this year.

“He seems to think it’s his duty to make every bill perfect according to his standards,” said one of several sources who confirmed what Coburn said in that meeting.

So it goes in the slow-motion world of the U.S. Senate, where any senator can put any bill, amendment or nomination on hold for any reason, at any time.

The Senate modified that practice slightly this month, voting to make such holds public. But that’s little consolation to House members such as Slaughter, who say they too often see good legislation fall prey to the whims of senators on the other side of Capitol Hill.

“There’s really something wrong with our process,” said Slaughter, D-Fairport.

Supporters of legislation encouraging the prosecution of old civil rights cases might say the same thing.

So might supporters of patent law reform, and increased security in the nation’s courthouses, and a bill strengthening penalties against cockfighting, and a resolution honoring the memory of environmentalist Rachel Carson.

87 holds ‘very unusual’

Coburn has placed all those measures on hold this year, according to news accounts from across the country.

“It’s part of the negotiating process,” said Coburn’s spokesman, Aaron Cooper, who made a point to mention that conservative columnists have dubbed Coburn “Dr. No.”

“He’s just exercising his right to try to modify bills,” Cooper said, adding that the exact number of holds that Coburn has in place “is kind of a moving target every day.”

Coburn routinely puts holds on bills that violate his core principles, Cooper said. In particular, the senator likes to stand in the way of any new federal program that is not paid for, or anything that might duplicate another program, or anything that might be unconstitutional.

And he makes his holds public, rather than cloaking them in secrecy, which was the common practice until this month’s ethics reform bill forced them into the light of day.

“If I don’t agree with it, why am I going to let it go?” Coburn told the New York Times. “The members think the [disclosure] rule will intimidate people into not holding bills, but it doesn’t bother me.”

While there are no records indicating how common holds are, it seems clear that Coburn is responsible for an uncommon number of them, said Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian for the Senate.

“Usually people don’t tally up their holds, but the fact that he’s said he has 87 shows it’s very unusual,” Ritchie said.

High frustration level

Predictably, supporters of Slaughter’s legislation are not exactly thrilled with Coburn’s negotiating tactics.

“Our level of frustration is high, as you might well imagine,” said Joann A. Boughman, executive vice president of the American Society of Human Genetics.

Boughman said Slaughter, a microbiologist by training, was ahead of the curve in first proposing a bill 12 years ago to bar employers and insurance companies from discriminating against people based on their genetic makeup.

Interest has grown in that bill in recent years, as researchers increasingly have linked cancers and heart disease to particular genes raising fears that employers and insurers may want to discriminate against people from the wrong gene pool.

Supporters of Slaughter’s bill said the fear of such discrimination stands in the way of genetic research that could lead to miraculous health care breakthroughs.

“We will never unlock the great promise of the Human Genome Project if Americans are too afraid to get genetic testing,” said Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., who teamed with Slaughter to push the bill through the House.

Without such legislation, “these fears will persist, research at National Institutes of Health will slow, and Americans will never realize the benefits and health care savings of gene-based medicines,” Biggert said.

For such reasons, Slaughter’s bill won public endorsements not only from Democrats but from the Bush White House and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

“And yet we have, in some cases, I think, for personal reasons, held this up,” Slaughter said. “It’s a tragedy.”

Of course, Coburn doesn’t see it that way.

“I am concerned that this could benefit trial lawyers more than it would protect patients,” Coburn said in an e-mail to supporters of the bill. “The second primary objection to the current language of the bill is that the definition of genetic test is inconsistent.”

Coburn added in his e-mail that he supports the bill in principle, and Cooper said the senator is working with the bill’s Senate backers to craft language that will address his concerns.

Nevertheless, supporters of the bill said Coburn’s actions have left them perplexed and concerned.

Wary of amendments

They are perplexed because Coburn actually supported a nearly identical version of the bill that passed the Senate unanimously in an earlier Congress, when it ran into a brick wall in the House.

And they’re concerned because Coburn’s complaints appear to be elusive targets. One supporter of the bill likened negotiating with the senator about it to a game of “Whack-a-Mole.”

The Senate could break the hold with the vote of a 60-vote majority, but the chambers are reluctant to do so because that might open up the legislation to amendments. Senate sources said the bill’s supporters are better off negotiating with Coburn privately.

Slaughter said she is worried that the stalemate over the bill “could go on for years,” but Boughman said Coburn has indicated that his concerns could be resolved by September.

In either case, Boughman noted that the bill’s plight proved one hard fact: “The process of having a bill become a law,” she said, “is so much more complicated than you learned it to be in junior high school.”

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