WASHINGTON—Two weeks of relentless rants against him from radio talk show host Don Imus is making Rep. Joe Barton a household name—but not in a way the Texas Republican wants.
Imus, whose "Imus in the Morning" program is heard on radio stations across much of the country and is seen weekday mornings on MSNBC, has described Barton as "a lying, fat little skunk from Texas," a "pipsqueak," a "coward and a crybaby" and "another congressional dirtbag" for holding up a bill on autism research.
Imus' emotional outbursts, as well as an orchestrated pressure campaign directed at Barton by autism research advocacy groups, stem from frustration that a Senate-passed bill didn't come up for a House of Representatives vote before Congress recessed Sept. 29.
The bill would increase and coordinate National Institutes of Health funding, set up far-ranging clinical studies and direct autism "centers of excellence" to conduct research, especially on environmental factors.
Barton said through his staff that it's possible a compromise will be reached to allow the bill to move ahead.
Autism, a neurological disorder that affects children by age 3 and impairs the development of social interaction and communication, now occurs in 1 of 166 births. In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control declared that autism was at epidemic proportions.
Autism research advocates, including one organization headed by Imus' wife, Deirdre, are united behind the Combating Autism Act of 2006, which the Senate passed unanimously in August. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., authored the bill.
They hoped for quick House action on a similar bill introduced by Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif. Bono's bill has 227 co-sponsors, but before getting to the full House, it has to clear the Energy and Commerce Committee, which Barton leads.
Barton's staff members say his position is more complicated than critics portray. They say the congressman supports autism research and is sympathetic to the toll the disease takes on families. Barton was traveling and was unavailable for an interview.
According to committee spokesman Larry Neal, Barton first was committed to passing his legislation to change the NIH, the agency responsible for overseeing the nation's health research. The bill increases NIH funding by 5 percent a year and is intended to improve accountability and information sharing in the agency, among other things.
One of Barton's priorities was to create a "common fund" that the NIH could use for promising research without Congress directing the money's use for specific diseases.
Barton met with autism activists on Sept. 12 and asked them to support his NIH legislation. Autism advocates thought their bill would be next in line to clear Barton's committee.
While the NIH reform bill passed the House 412-2, the separate autism bill hit a snag—Barton didn't like the Senate bill's stipulation that the centers of excellence investigate environmental factors.
The autism bill has yet to make it to the House floor, and the activists say they feel betrayed.
But Barton and his aides say they're working to get a compromise to the floor in the lame-duck session, which begins Nov. 13.
Neal is clearly weary of the pounding and strong-arming Barton is getting from powerful players such as Bob Wright, the president of NBC/Universal who, with his wife, founded Autism Speaks.
"The answer to everyone's concerns is a reasonable compromise that will up the funding for autism research," Neal said.
"We hope and believe that one is possible, and we're working on it. Folks like Don Imus and Bob Wright apparently believe that the intimidation of a daily beating will encourage us to find a solution that leaves politicians and activists instead of scientists in charge at NIH, but that doesn't seem like a good idea."
The issue is emotional, with many activists touched by friends or family with the disorder. Wright, who has been involved in negotiations with Barton, has a grandson who is autistic.
Imus said in an interview that he and his wife weren't directly affected by autism, but that they're close to the Wrights and know others who must cope with the disorder.
"It deserves to be passed," Imus said of the bill. "The NIH has got to be made to spend the money on this."
Imus said his personal campaign on the bill "doesn't help my ratings."
"People aren't tuning in to hear me talk about autism. I can hear the radio dials clicking off every day," he said.
Asked if attacking Barton was the most effective way to get him to act, Imus said, "He's not going to be chairman after November 7, if there's a God." If Democrats win control of the House in the Nov. 7 elections, Barton would no longer be committee chairman next year.
FACTS ON AUTISM
What is autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, a spectrum disorder, that usually shows up in the first three years of a child's life. It affects the way a brain functions and changes the way a person interacts and communicates with others.
Some facts on autism:
Autism is estimated to affect roughly 1 in every 166 births.
As many as 1.5 million Americans are believed to have some form of autism, and projections show that as many as 4 million Americans could have some form of autism in the next decade.
Signs of autism include difficulty starting or maintaining a conversation; aggressive behavior; problems communicating needs; crying or laughing for no reason; repeating words or phrases rather than having a conversation; throwing tantrums; preferring to be alone; not wanting eye contact or cuddling; and having no real fear of danger.
While there is no one cause for autism, many say it's caused by abnormalities in the brain. The actual shape or structure of the brain in an autistic child can be different. Researchers are studying genetics and heredity.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map