A bill to reauthorize autism-related research and screening programs passed the Senate on Monday night by unanimous consent, ending concerns that programs might expire at the end of the month.
Under the legislation, the package is authorized to continue for three years. Money to pay for the programs has yet to be approved, but legislators have asked for $693 million. President Obama has said he will sign the bill.
The autism legislation was uncontroversial and had sponsors from both parties in both the House and the Senate, but it hit a few roadblocks. On the House side, it stalled for months before suddenly passing on suspension last week without ever going through committee. In the Senate, it appeared set to pass until Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., raised objections on the floor last week about the bill, and about the larger issue of whether legislative action is the right way for the country to set research priorities.
Those concerns have apparently been resolved. According to Peter Bell, the executive vice president of programs and services for the advocacy group Autism Speaks, three objecting senators released their hold on the bill after its sponsor, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., agreed to ask the General Accountability Office to investigate how money in the program is being spent.
“We are very supportive of that,” Bell said. “We have always been for the utmost accountability for the funds that are being spent.”
Extensions of the program were also part of this week’s continuing resolution legislation. But autism advocates were concerned that the expiration of the programs could be problematic even if that bill passed. They lobbied legislators intensively and encouraged families of children with developmental disabilities and the clinicians who treat them to reach out to members of Congress.