Roadblock Holding Up Highway Bill Cleared

Congress's huge highway and transit bill headed for a final round of negotiations yesterday after Senate Republicans and Democrats resolved a dispute over ground rules for the talks that had stalled action on the measure for weeks.

Senate Democrats, complaining that they have been improperly excluded from final decisions on other major bills, refused to begin negotiations on the six-year transportation measure until they were assured of full participation in the House-Senate conference. The accord, announced late Wednesday, included a pledge that Senate Republicans would not agree to a final bill that "undermines the bipartisan working relationship that has existed in the Senate" on the legislation.

But the bill's troubles are far from over. The White House is objecting to the size of both the $318 billion bill passed by the Senate and the $284 billion measure approved by the House. The White House has threatened to veto any bill costing more than $256 billion. The previous $218 billion program expired last fall, and the latest extension of funding lasts until the end of June.

Screening of Transplant Tissue Expanded

Virtually all donated tissues and cells including sperm and stem cells -- or their donors -- must be screened for diseases including AIDS and SARS under a new FDA rule.

Doctors, politicians and patient groups have pushed for the new rule, which took five years to develop. The pressure increased in recent years with the publicized deaths of patients who received infected transplants of seemingly innocuous tissue such as knee tendons and heart valves. The rule becomes effective May 25, 2005.

"Today's rule is focused on ensuring that tissues from suitable donors are used," said Jesse Goodman, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration.

Since 1993, the FDA has required that donations of muscle, tendon, skin and eye tissue be tested for hepatitis B and C and for the AIDS virus. "Under this new rule, reproductive tissue (semen, ova and embryos), hematopoietic [blood]stem cells derived from cord blood and peripheral blood sources (circulating blood sources as opposed to bone marrow), cellular therapies and other innovative products are also regulated," the FDA said in a statement.

FDA Tobacco Oversight Moves a Step Closer

The government could impose tough new restrictions on cigarette makers under legislation embraced by key lawmakers that would give the Food and Drug Administration broad authority to regulate tobacco products.

The FDA, for example, could ban the use of harmful additives in cigarettes under twin bills introduced in the House and Senate.

It is the first time identical FDA bills have been introduced by Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of Congress. It also is the first time industry leader Philip Morris USA and key anti-smoking groups have supported the same regulatory approach.

"I think today is a breakthrough," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "This is a strong bill that has the potential to save literally tens of millions of lives."

Philip Morris officials say FDA regulation would help the company market new tobacco products. Other major manufacturers do not support the legislation, saying new advertising restrictions would prevent them from capturing any of Philip Morris's market share. The legislation would be paid for by a fee assessed on tobacco companies.

-- Compiled from reports by staff writer

Helen Dewar and news services