Congress this week seems to be enjoying a little bipartisan calm before the partisan fiscal storm expected after the Thanksgiving break.
The preholiday tone was set Monday with Senate passage of two health-related bills, including one to strengthen safety standards for drug-compounding pharmacies. The measure — which already had broad support in the House — garnered 97 votes and easily survived a delaying tactic by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who sought a vote on his Obamacare amendment.
"This is exactly how the Senate is supposed to work, and when it works best it works this way," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which worked for months on the legislation. "Often the most complex bills pass as this one did by unanimous consent because we've been tedious and laborious and we've gone through the whole process."
Amid a briar patch of politically thorny issues, from the budget and the debt to health care reform, Congress these days finds it nearly impossible to pass what was once routine legislation. So far this year just 49 laws have been enacted, most of them fairly noncontroversial.
Passage of the pharmaceutical bill was partly spurred by a tragedy last year when a compounding facility in Massachusetts distributed a deadly mixture of steroid injections that caused a nationwide outbreak of fungal meningitis and led to 64 deaths.
"Obviously one element of the story is you had tragedy and you had real national concern about it," said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., who is also a member of the HELP Committee. "I think that adds urgency that you sometimes don't have, even with a bill that has substantive bipartisan support."
The bill was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, and the Federation of American Hospitals, among about two dozen other outside organizations. "Whenever you can get a lot of those groups on the same page, or close, that obviously helps a lot," Casey said.
Added Alexander: "It always makes a difference if people in the country oppose or support an important piece of legislation."
The other health bill passed Monday by unanimous consent would reauthorize a global AIDS relief program started in 2003 under former President George W. Bush. Republican leaders in the House have already put the bill on the suspension calendar for this week, meaning two-thirds majority support will be required for it to pass — reflecting the expectation that it will face little opposition.
This would be the second five-year authorization of the program since it was first enacted at a time when HIV/AIDS threatened billions of people around the planet. The 2008 version authorized the program for another five years at $48 billion, and it received strong bipartisan support that year as well.
This year's bill does not include a specific authorization number, nor does it include sums on funding levels for specific programs. That leaves the levels functionally the same, according to congressional aides.
According to a memo on the bill prepared for lawmakers, the program now known as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) remains the largest commitment by any nation to combat a single disease internationally.
Under the program, nearly 6 million people are now receiving life-sustaining antiretroviral treatment. The staff memo also states that more than 11 million pregnant women received HIV testing and counseling last year while the one-millionth baby was born HIV-free this year as a result of treatment through the program.
PEPFAR has provided care and support to nearly 15 million people, including more than 4.5 million orphans and vulnerable children, the memo states.
Next up in the Senate is the annual defense authorization bill, another measure with bipartisan backing — if both sides can agree on the amendments that will be considered. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Monday evening he was worried about whether the Senate will be able to have a final vote on the bill before the Thanksgiving break if the amendment process gets bogged down.
In any case, after the recess, temperatures are certain to rise in the Capitol, as a conference committee on the budget nears the deadline for making recommendations on a spending plan for 2014 and, if possible, beyond.