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Texas lawmaker works out compromise on autism bill

WASHINGTON—After a daily drumbeat of negative publicity from radio personality Don Imus that lasted for weeks, a Texas congressman has worked out a compromise on a $945 million bill to fight autism.

The Combating Autism Act goes to the House of Representatives Wednesday for a vote under streamlined procedures. Supporters anticipate that the bill, which has been revised slightly from a Senate-passed version, will pass by the two-thirds vote margin required and then be sent back to the Senate for a vote before Congress adjourns on Friday.

The five-year bill, introduced by departing Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., bumps up research for autism, a spectrum of developmental disorders that impair social interaction, and calls for coordinated research and early intervention programs. Autism, which appears by age 3, occurs in one of 166 births.

After a battle over the legislation between autism activist organizations and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, eleven major groups said in a statement Tuesday that they supported the compromise.

"The amended version of the Combating Autism Act, on which the House will vote, authorizes nearly $1 billion for autism research, including essential research on environmental factors, treatments, early identification and services," said the 11 groups. "It amounts to a declaration of war by the Congress of the United States on autism."

Kristi Hammer of Plano, Texas, who has a 4 {-year-old son who's autistic, said of the legislation: "It means so many things. It's a first in a huge step with the government acknowledging autism is a national emergency. There's a trickle-down effect in research with early intervention and screening.

"Hopefully," said Hammer, "this bill will someday result in a cure for my son."

Barton was resistant to moving a "disease-specific" bill while he was working on legislation that affects the National Institutes of Health. The NIH bill passed the House in September, but Barton still had problems with the autism bill's focus on the NIH and the stipulation that researchers study environmental factors that autism activists maintain trigger the disease.

The compromise allocates funding to NIH but directs the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to set up regional centers of excellence for epidemiological research. The bill includes environmental factors in the list of research areas to be studied, but drops the Senate-passed version's provision for $45 million in research on environmental factors.

House Energy and Commerce Committee spokesman Kevin Schweers said the changes in the House bill are "consistent with Chairman Barton's view that scientists should determine research priorities, not politicians."

The changes were a bitter pill for some of the activists, who said in their statement that "Chairman Barton is fully aware that the autism community would have preferred House action on the Senate-passed version of this bill."

But others embraced the compromise.

"We welcome this bill," said Marguerite Colston, director of communications for the Autism Society of America. "It means the federal government is taking a leadership role in diagnostics, causes and cures for autism."

Barton staffers don't think Imus, whose New York-based radio program, "Imus in the Morning," is seen nationally on MSNBC and heard across the country, helped the cause by calling the Texan "another congressional dirtbag" and worse. But autism activists believe that without the pressure, nothing would have happened with the bill.

"Imus," said Hammer, "is our hero."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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