WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are officially giving up hopes of considering a bill to speed the development of new medical cures before they leave town for an extended recess, sharply increasingly the likelihood that the legislation might have to be taken up by the next Congress.
They’re not declaring the effort dead. Instead, Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate health committee, said late Monday he hopes the Senate can reach an agreement and pass the legislation in September, when lawmakers return from a seven-week break.
“This could be the most important legislation Congress passes this year, and there’s no excuse for not finishing our work in September,” the Tennessee Republican said in a statement, noting that the package would include funding for President Obama’s precision medicine initiative and Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer research program.
The reality, though, is that the legislation has been bogged down for weeks as Republicans have haggled with Senate Democrats over how much funding should be in the package and what other programs should be cut to pay for it.
Privately, Senate Democrats aren’t convinced that much progress can be made in September, since it will be the height of election season and there won’t be much incentive for the Republicans who run the Senate to work with Democrats on bipartisan legislation.
If the legislation isn’t brought to the Senate floor before the election, the other option would be to try to finish the work in a “lame duck” session of Congress — when lawmakers sometimes try to pass a series of stalled bills in a sudden rush of last-minute work.
The House passed its version of the so-called 21st Century Cures Act last year, but Alexander has taken a different approach, splitting it into a series of smaller, non-controversial bills that have been approved by his committee. He had hoped to get an agreement with Democrats on research funding and stitch it all together into a package to take to the Senate floor, but that agreement hasn’t come despite weeks of negotiations.
The goal of the effort is to try to make it easier for new drugs and medical devices to win approval by federal regulators so patients can use them as quickly as possible. The legislation is supported by the pharmaceutical and medical device industries as well as patient advocacy groups, but public watchdog groups worry that it would undermine the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to make sure the new products are safe.