Pool-Safety Bill Caught Up In Senator's Budget Crusade

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

Five years ago, Virginia Graeme Baker, the 7-year-old granddaughter of former secretary of state James A. Baker III, drowned at a pool party in McLean when she was pulled underwater by the force of a hot-tub drain.

Simple safety measures like a raised drain cover could have saved her life. And in the years since her death, her mother, Nancy Baker, has pursued federal legislation that would give states an incentive to change building codes to require those safety features.

The culmination of those efforts, the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, passed the House in October and was on the brink of becoming law last month. But in a twist that could happen only in Washington, the measure has run aground -- an unlikely victim of a senator's crusade against wasteful government spending.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a physician and a fiscal conservative, thwarted two recent attempts in the Senate to pass the bill by unanimous consent by placing a hold on it, as he has done with a total of 95 bills because they authorize new spending without offsets elsewhere in the federal budget.

Coburn "supports the goal of the legislation but believes Congress needs to make choices and prioritize spending," his spokesman John Hart said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the bill's original House sponsor, described Coburn's action as "callous."

"We can prevent [drownings]," she said. "Now there is one person standing in the way."

At the start of the year, quick passage seemed likely. The measure had bipartisan and industry support, not to mention the backing of the Bakers. It was narrowly defeated in the final minutes of the previous Congress, and Democratic leaders made its adoption this time a priority. Momentum accelerated as product safety became a top issue after high-profile recalls of toothpaste, tires and toys.

And the bill's goals were hard to criticize: reducing the incidence of drowning, which is the second-leading cause of accidental death for children younger than 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Parts of the measure seek to prevent the kind of accident that killed Virginia Graeme Baker, known to her family as Graeme, and at least 32 other children from 1985 to 2004. Drain entrapments also injured more than 100 children during that period, said Safe Kids Worldwide, a Washington advocacy group that has worked with Nancy Baker on the bill.

This summer, two 6-year-olds were involved in entrapment accidents. Abigail Taylor of Edina, Minn., was disemboweled by an open drain in a wading pool at a country club. She survived, but the damage to her intestinal tract means she now must be fed intravenously. Zachary Archer Cohn of Greenwich, Conn., drowned after his arm got stuck in an intake valve in his family's backyard pool.

The pool industry has known for some time that raised drain covers, multiple drains and safety vacuum release devices can help prevent entrapment, said Bill Weber, president and chief executive of the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals. But getting such features incorporated into pools and hot tubs requires changes to state laws and local building codes.

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