Coburn, shown at a briefing in September, is holding up a bill promoting research on the deadliest cancers. Congressional mandates would hamstring health officials, he said.
In the last few days before Congress left for its campaign recess, legislation to promote research on the deadliest cancers looked like it was on the fast track to the president’s desk.
The bill had overwhelming bipartisan support. Nearly 300 members co-sponsored it in the House, where it passed Sept. 19 by voice vote under an expedited process. Earlier that day, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee had approved a companion measure, also by voice vote. That bill already had been negotiated with the House, said Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
But even a cancer research bill can draw opposition, this time from Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Coburn, a three-time cancer survivor, is not against research to fight the disease. But he is opposed to Congress giving orders to researchers. So, for now at least, he is holding up the bill (HR 733).
Coburn’s concerns about the measure, as well as similar ones expressed by the head of the National Cancer Institute, have not deterred supporters of the bill, and they return to Capitol Hill this week with a renewed sense of purpose.
“We are still determined and committed to getting it done this Congress,” said Julie M. Fleshman, president and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
She said her organization is asking people to write their senators to urge support and is also staying in touch with the bill’s sponsors to find a way to get the measure passed.
In addition, “the House and Senate leaders of the bill are working together to address Sen. Coburn’s concerns,” said a spokesman for House sponsor Anna G. Eshoo, adding that supporters “remain optimistic it can pass this session.”
The legislation already has undergone changes to address earlier concerns raised by lawmakers, the cancer institute and other parties, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. As introduced, for example, the bill included authorizations for funding that were removed by a House subcommittee because many members of Congress were resistant to measures linked to potential spending in the current fiscal climate.
Also, the original bill focused on research aimed just at pancreatic cancer, but lawmakers were worried about pushing disease-specific legislation. So sponsors expanded its scope to include “recalcitrant cancers” — defined as those cancers with five-year survival rates of less than 50 percent.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.