Pending administration input, lawmakers delay vote on biosecurity bill

WASHINGTON — A key U.S. Senate committee Oct. 28 delayed the vote on legislation aimed at strengthening security at the country's biological research facilities, according to the Global Security Newswire.

The Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee put off for at least a week the review of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2009 to allow the Obama administration additional time to comment on the bill, said panel Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.

The legislation — sponsored by Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee's ranking member — would require the Homeland Security Department to issue security regulations for laboratories. It would divide the government's list of select agents and toxins into three tiers, compelling facilities that handle the eight to 10 most harmful pathogens to institute the highest security.

The measure also calls for a national strategy for dispensing medical countermeasures to the public before and after a biological attack.

Collins estimated the bill would affect some 400 U.S. research facilities and the nearly 15,000 individuals authorized to handle deadly pathogens.

The legislation is based largely on the recommendations of the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

In December, the panel found that an attack involving a weapon of mass destruction is likely to occur somewhere in the world by 2013 in the absence of significant security improvements. The analysis also stated that a biological strike was more likely to occur than a nuclear attack because of the prevalence of deadly pathogens and materials.

Committee member Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Oct. 28 that it would be a "mistake" to take up the bill because several agencies — including the Homeland Security and Defense departments and the National Security Council — had not weighed in on the proposals.

"The bill is moving very quickly even though the issue [of laboratory security] has been around a long time," he said, adding the bill was introduced just last month. Collins decried the number of government and independent studies that have examined laboratory security since 2007.

"I've become convinced that those studies have become an excuse to avoid acting, and rather than waiting for more studies it is time for us to act," she said.

Collins urged action on the measure because the Obama administration has said it would not formulate "concrete legislative proposals until at least next summer." She predicted it would take 18 months before the Senate received a biosecurity bill from the White House and at least three years before any potential regulations from that legislation would be in place.

That would place the nation significantly closer to the 2013 deadline given by the WMD commission, Collins noted.

Lieberman said both he and Collins received phone calls Oct. 27 from John Brennan, President Barack Obama's assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism. The Connecticut lawmaker dubbed the timing of the calls "noteworthy."

Brennan pledged greater consultation on the measure between his staff and that of the committee, according to Lieberman.

Lieberman said he expected the review of the proposed legislation to take place next week.